4.15 / Review

The Clock

By Patricia Maloney May 4, 2013

(With Matt Sussman)

Currently on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Christian Marclay’s digital video The Clock (2010) is a twenty-four-hour timepiece synced to the real time of the location where it is installed. As each minute elapses, successive film clips reveal a watch, a mantle clock, a clock tower, or other timepiece displaying the corresponding time. Surrounding each of these time-stamped clips are others that momentarily synthesize a narrative around, or trenchantly capture, a prevailing mood, tied to a particular time of day—a result of Marclay’s deft editing of his disparate source materials. We perceive the implications of the unfolding action and begin to weave a story around it, only to be disrupted by the next scene, lifted from a different film, whose original storyline is subsumed by the one conjured by The Clock’s endlessly looped montage. 

For example, the sense of foreboding conveyed by a scene at 1:35 p.m., of a man walking slowly through a silent office to his desk to find a note asking him to report to management, is further underscored by the jump to a courtroom scene: in both clips, judgment is imminent. Marclay’s precise coordination of action, setting, eye lines, camera movement, or pacing between clips constantly inaugurates new trajectories of meaning while consistently underscoring the mechanics by which those meanings are constructed; in The Clock there is a push and pull between our cognizance of the two. We recognize the video’s syntax at the same time we can marvel at what it evokes. For example, when a black-and-white scene of a figure exiting through a doorway cuts to another of someone entering a room in full color, we register the juxtaposition even as we interpret a continuity of space. 

Christian Marclay. The Clock, 2010 (video still); single-channel video with stereo sound; 24:00:00. Courtesy of the Artist and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York.

Whether working with vinyl records, film, photography, or, more recently, comics, Marclay displays a canny understanding of the mechanics of the popular mediums with which he works, deconstructing each medium into its most basic units whose inherent quality is the malleability with which they can be assembled. Continuity between the aggregated units is not explicit; an audience can only read the work as sequential if the medium’s codified structure is already legible to them. In The Clock, time itself becomes the malleable unit. At 2:04 p.m., a truck rolls by: viewers read “Time Moving and Storage” on the side and, as the truck passes, “Time Moved” on the back. It is a sly visual pun that implicates time as an object that requires force acting upon it, without which it would remain inert. And in fact, this is commented on at 2:14 p.m., when Captain Hook cajoles Peter Pan’s son, in a scene from Hook (1991), to “make time stand still” by destroying his father’s watch. Stilling and stretching time are recurring tropes throughout film history. Marclay’s process of culling and reordering disparate images makes even more apparent the extent to which condensing time and space to synthesize meaning is already a filmmaking convention. 

Christian Marclay. The Clock, 2010 (video still); single-channel video with stereo sound; 24:00:00. Courtesy of the Artist and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York.
Christian Marclay. The Clock, 2010 (video still); single-channel video with stereo sound; 24:00:00. Courtesy of the Artist and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York.

But in considering the scene (rather than the still) as the cellular unit of a film, The Clock confounds time as its central subject. In the piece, time exists without date; the relative time of day depicted in a clip is cleaved from a conception of the date on which it occurred, either the date it was filmed or the one it depicts. The Clock unravels the intertwined systems of calibration—date and time—with which one accounts for one’s life span. The simultaneity between the cinematic moment and the moment in which a viewer watches Marclay’s film, as one activity among many in the day, creates a point of friction. Rather than implicating ourselves as actors in the narratives unfolding on the screen, we are hyperaware that our role and place is as the audience. The dark theater-like setting of the gallery, with its rows of comfy white couches, is a hermetic environment that excludes ambient noises, sunlight, and all but incidental interactions with fellow viewers. The synchronicity of cinematic and real time unfolding in this kind of space grounds us in what the time actually is along with how much time has passed. Marclay purposefully hinders film’s capacity to manipulate time, to compress months and years into the short span of a couple of hours. In The Clock, during the noon hour, we see a clip of Burgess Meredith from the famous episode “Time Enough at Last” (1959) of The Twilight Zone, designating months for each stack of books before him (“January. February. March.”). Two hours later, Vincent D’Onofrio implores of Marisa Tomei, “One month. What’s a month? We have years.” But The Clock subverts such gestures toward infinity or even finitude because of its ceaseless, synchronized forward momentum.

The diegetic timepieces that punctuate The Clock are frequently interspersed with scenes of hurried and harried figures responding to the pressure of time or its drawn-out elapse. The approach to 2:00 p.m. is marked by Peter Parker’s frantic drive to deliver pizzas on time in Spider-Man (2002), arriving just too late at 2:03 p.m. A glance at a watch might be followed by someone sitting at a table awaiting a meal or, around 7:00 p.m., by recurring images of a cigarette left burning in an ashtray from This Man Must Die (1969). The juxtaposition parallels how we measure time as much by habit as by the clock. We associate certain moods or actions with particular times of day—lunch break, happy hour, bedtime—that are reinforced by repetition. While The Clock deftly conjures such associations, in sometimes brilliant moments—3:00 p.m. is signaled by ringing bells and the exuberant burst of children onto school playgrounds, and the 7:00 p.m. hour is poignantly marked both by preparations for evening soirees and by a person waiting for the phone call from someone who has yet to return home—it doesn’t supplant them. We can leave and return to the video, and in the ensuing time between viewings, we have eaten and slept and worked and played, but in The Clock, Angelina Jolie will forever at 1:29 p.m. stand atop a lookout tower, peering through binoculars, and then look at her watch. Our experiences, including our experiences of viewing these films in their entirety, do not permeate or alter the mood that The Clock affixes to a particular moment. 

Film parallels our relative experience of time, complicating our experience of The Clock as calibrated time. Marclay’s video operates as a kind of conflicted memento mori: time is indifferent to the means by which we mark it and is not concerned with our passing through it even as film grants us a momentary reprieve from dwelling on our mortality. The Clock cycles through moments of death and grieving, but then the scene changes and the onscreen suffering we just witnessed is rendered inconsequential. The infinitely looped sprawl of narratives that emerge, recur, are interrupted, and dissipate throughout the video refuse the impulse to navigate in a single direction, including the march toward the moment when our time is finally up.

The Clock is on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art through June 3, 2013. On each Saturday in May, the Museum will extend its hours so the entire 24-hour duration is viewable. 

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