San Francisco

Time After Time: “The Clock” at SFMOMA

Christian Marclay, video still from The Clock, 2010; single-channel video with stereo sound, 24 hours; courtesy the artist and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York. All photos from Christian Marclay: The Clock; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Everyone I know who saw Christian Marclay’s Clock raved about it. The 24-hour sequence of film clips, most with a view of a clock face, is more action-packed than I’d imagined it would be. The focus is as much on the events surrounding the passage of time as on the instruments we use to measure that passage. In this way, The Clock isn’t about clocks at all, and often is only circumstantially related to temporality. What it’s really about is film technology, the nature of story telling, nostalgia, and the absurdity of life.

First things first: you don’t need to watch all 24 hours. I say this with the arrogance of someone who saw only two hours; and I say it even though I am constitutionally drawn to finishing things I begin, even though I believe there is a qualitative difference between doing something for a little time and doing that same thing for a long time. I recognize the irrationality of my confidence in grasping Marclay’s epic after experiencing only 8 percent of it. It is also true that some people insist that one period of Clock watching—10:00 am to noon, for instance—is qualitatively different from another—4:00 to 5:30 pm; or 1:00 to 2:00 am. Such natural enthusiams are proof of Marclay’s achievement, even if they are tinged, perhaps, with nostalgia; that is, influenced by the memories and narratives we fabricate as a fortress against the passage of time. But there is a way in which every period—whether period equals segment formed from connected scenes, hour, or length of time I sat in the theater—is always the same.

Christian Marclay, video still from The Clock, 2010; single-channel video with stereo sound, 24 hours; courtesy the artist and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York

Everyone admires Marclay’s craft. He strings together thousands and thousands of moments from cinematic history, transforming fragments into a whole or, more precisely—since few witness the complete opus—into a series of “scenes” that somehow tell a story none of them originally set out to tell. He invites the sound from one fragment to extend seamlessly into the soundscape of the next. He conjures such segues with images as well, fading not into a double exposure, at least not during my two hours—11:15 am to 1:15 pm—but into a double exposure of associations. (And he goes beyond film editing techniques such as shot-countershot to produce this illusion of continuity from one fragment to the next.) Buttressing the whole composition is the beat, beat, beat of the clock—digital, analog, mechanical (even a sundial!)—whose relentless tick-tock presence comprises not only a visual metronome but also the false sense that we are experiencing the passage of time as linear, as complete, as fully accounted for. What a delightful fictional device! On its face, the clocks prove that time exists; beneath this facade, the seconds don’t add up, revealing the artificiality of the whole overlay of minutes and hours.

But mostly what Marclay achieves is a continuous recollection not of films we remember having seen—although there is plenty of that—but of films that we feel we’ve seen, even though we haven’t, as if the whole history of film comprised our collective (sub)consciousness. You and I are there. It appears to be no accident that the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art gallery in which The Clock plays through June 2 is a darkened theater, evoking something of what I imagine as the hushed, almost religious, original cinema experience. The ritual begins outside the sanctuary. Here, I experience a different sort of time. That’s part of the Clock experience too, the period of waiting. People wait for hours. Many will wait longer than I will have watched (the price of redemption, I guess). Eventually, I am called and guided by one of the two ushers ministering the sanctum to one of the pre-seating, standing-room places at the back of the theater. I hug the wall for 30 minutes with a dozen other initiates. Before us spreads not only the screen but also the heads of visitors silhouetted against grainy film clips. Finally, having withstood these trials of endurance, I am called for a second time. I shiver as I follow the darkened profile of my usher down one of the two aisles, past row after row of three-seat couches, toward the promise of the epiphany.

Christian Marclay, video still from The Clock, 2010; single-channel video with stereo sound, 24 hours; White Cube Mason’s Yard, London, October 15–November 13, 2010; courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York, and White Cube, London. Photo: Todd-White Photography; © Christian Marclay. The White Cube gallery arrangement is slightly different from the SFMOMA arrangement I describe.

Despite the revelations of The Clock, I do not rave about it the way my friends have. I rave about it differently. I am never bored, just clear that one time could pass for another. And that, dear readers, is the point. Even if 11:15 to 1:15 would be your favorite of all Marclay time periods—it certainly is mine!—eventually, I predict, you would feel a saturation, an unsettled sensation that you’ve had enough. But there is no relief, because then, compulsion forces you to continue on and on and on. Because, well, you might miss something.

Isn’t this what life is, a sequence of such promises? We stay and stay and stay in order to satisfy the desire to see what will happen next. I can’t know anything about this string of unrelated events—orphaned from the parent-films in whose embrace they had meaning and then adopted almost arbitrarily—because, even as I stand in awe of Marclay’s choices and craft, I know there are thousands of other as-good choices the artist might have fostered instead.

Christian Marclay, video still from The Clock, 2010; single-channel video with stereo sound, 24 hours; courtesy the artist and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York

One tick after another, The Clock proclaims, “Life is arbitrary.” Unrelated events will accrete into meaning, because we are meaning-making machines willing to mold meaning out of anything. The Clock is a film that Camus could love as Sisyphus had to love his labor, love it like a rock. This explains why The Clock is both a testament to our devotion to movie trailers—90 percent of the time, the preview is better than the film, right?—and a refutation of them. Marclay’s epic cannot, itself, be trailerized. Don’t leave, don’t even blink: you will miss something. 

Christian Marclay, video still from The Clock, 2010; single-channel video with stereo sound, 24 hours; White Cube Mason’s Yard, London, October 15–November 13, 2010; courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York, and White Cube, London. Photo: Todd-White Photography; © Christian Marclay.

Rob Marks writes about the nature of the aesthetic experience and its effect on self and society. He has graduate degrees in visual and critical studies and journalism, and is a frequent contributor to DailyServing.

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