Tate Modern 14 September 2018 – 20 January 2019
Being eclipsed, suspended and enslaved by time is our real-time immersion in modern life, moving inevitably towards eternal midnight.Christian Marclay takes what it is to be human and winds it into the mechanism of TheClock so seamlessly, with such artistry and grace, that words like ‘genius’and ‘masterpiece’ are entirely justified. After experiencing three-and-a-half-hoursof this work, I was profoundly moved, elated and frustrated that watching the full 24hrs wasn’t an option during my visit. There aren’t many works of “NOW” I’d want to spend that kind of time with, but The Clock is something else. It’s a work of art you enter into and become part of, rather than passively watch. Marclay has managed to create a work as addictive as the multidimensional concept of time and existence it encapsulates, an unrelenting and strangely beautiful meditation on time running out for us all. Despite its modern materials and contemporary masterwork status, Marclay’s Clock transcends the time it was made. It speaks of universal human experience through sound and image in a compelling, urgent way. I place ‘sound’ first, because Marclay’s craft and foundation as an artist is making objects from audio. The Clock is a highly distilled example drawn from a lifetime’s exploration, which is the real source of its genius.Fortunately for the UK, one of six limited edition copies of The Clock has now entered the Tate collection, jointly purchased with the Centre Pompidou, Paris and the Israel Museum, Jerusalem.
Originally commissioned by The White Cube, London, where it debuted in 2010, The Clock is an incredible artistic achievement in its union of concept and craft. A montage composed of over 12,000 clips, spanning 100 years of film and television,screened over 24 hours in real time may sound like a work tailor-made for film geeks. (And I won’t lie, part of my irrepressible joy in this work stems from that.) However, the way that Marclay handles this material brings wider frames of reference and association brilliantly into play. Although it is an epic work of art, film and human history, The Clock is also a very intimate experience, where your own projections/ narratives meet those of the maker(s). I heard quite a few people on exit reminiscing with friends and family, delighted, thoughtful and wondering in awe about how it was made. Marclay was aided by six assistants in finding and sorting suitable material over three years. However, the vast amount of footage needed to construct The Clock isn’t as impressive as the skill required to create cohesion and expanded meaning in the final 24 hr edit. The most powerful sense of identification inside this work isn’t ultimately based on how many film-clips you recognise, entwined with your own viewing/ life history, but with the collective human orientation towards understanding. Wonder and curiosity are as much a part of the projection as the threat of advancing time and fear of death. In human terms The Clock is an admission and a creative act of defiance, a monument to human perception and memory that makes us who and what we are.
As a species we’re hardwired to construct meaning and aspire to dreams, a trajectory held in tension with the fact that as time marches on, we edge closer to becoming dust, akin to celluloid ash. Human mortalityand vulnerability are part of what makes The Clock tick. The ways we are driven and shaped by time, as concept and physical reality, permeate every frame in ways that are playful, ironic and visionary. I loved the free, associative power of this work, providing triggers for the viewer’s imagination within an ever-evolving structure of interwoven narratives. Although there are human hands at work in The Clock’s construction, it’s the individual and collective minds of the audience that are the beating heart of this work. Sound and image overlap, contradict and elevate moments of recognition. Marclay’s command, not just of film language and genre, but the ways we see, is so astute, that my trust in where I was being taken was absolute. I really didn’t want to leave and would have happily gone with the flow for the full 24 hrs. Punctuated with humour, suspense and sublime poetry, The Clock is a work that illuminates beyond expectation. Many people are cynical about contemporary art, the value and spaces it occupies, but here is a work that places value on the imagination and intelligence of audiences, to do what we do naturally as human beings. Making connections and creating meaning is the elusive essence of life we’re all trying to grasp in one way or another. In The Clock, Fine Art meets mass media in ways that the internet has failed to democratise. You need Craft and contact with people to create beyond instantaneous self-gratification. This is what makes The Clock such an enriching experience, the sense of being part of something bigger, but no less powerful than an independent mind. You know you’re not alone in the dark and the longer you stay within the span of this work, the more it reveals, somewhere between the conscious and unconscious.That emerging process of recognition feels poignant and true, part of the extended, real time experience. However long we choose (or are able) to spend inside it, Marclay has created a space we are free to bring ourselves to and actively dream in, a homage to the enduring magic of cinema. This love for form and material makes a world of difference in any made object. It’s an investment of time and energy that can transform how we see and the world around us.
At base we are watching, waiting and anticipating the mundane and extraordinary pattern of life in a perfectly synchronised 24-hrcycle. Common experiences at different times of day like waking or clocking off connect audiences, together with genres of popular entertainment. Commentary ontime takes many forms, through image, dialogue and sound. We don’t need a degree in film studies to feel the dramatic arc or emotional trajectory of that exploration. Consciously or not, we know what it is to be a hostage in cinema. Our Western Pop culture viewing is steeped in Hollywood fuelled conventions watching Westerns, Thrillers or Rom-Coms play out on screens big and small. It’s the same when we hear a symphonic piece of music. Despite the variation, the core material is deeply, culturally, known to us and it is rare that we are not reassuringly returned to the home key by the end of the performance. Marclay’s final destination may be unknown, but the journey is knowingly crafted and deeply empathic in terms of the visual creatures we are. If this sounds too intellectual, I can assure you it isn’t- while you’re watching The Clock, you may be conscious of time elapsing, but you’re not conscious of the mechanism and are free to create your own moments out of it, something barely afforded time in everyday life. It is hugely enjoyable, laugh out loud funny and deeply resonant to be confronted with images anchored in your own time, whether iconic or incidental. The Clock’s crafted stream of consciousness overlaps with the visual soundtrack of our lives and personal memories. It also contradicts that familiarity, shattering time with the suggestion that it is an invention; a ‘clock on a mantlepiece [was] a magician’s trick a few hundred years ago.’ The worlds of Art and Science merge in human ingenuity and invention, driven by our ageless desire for knowledge and control. In the late afternoon, a clip from the 1950’s presented a Marclay induced fable about apowerful Sultan with control of time, coupled with the dangerous, all-consuming need to know how time is spent. Our relationship with the technology of the day is simultaneously questioned, realised and foreshadowed for generations to come.
In many ways The Clock is a mirror where moments of fiction and history emerge out of each other, stimulating deeper reflection. In one scene, we see a pocket watch and running medal, inanimate objects from Peter Weir’s Gallipoli reinterpreted by sound and the fluid slip into the next cut. In the original film, the human absence of soldiers gone over the top at the designated time becomes the injustice of life wilfully extinguished by man. The film once watched is also a memory, with its own unfurling narratives in the mind of theviewer. However, the beauty of this clip lies in the clarity of the edit, which presents us with objects of association, in that moment and for all time. ‘Remember time is luck’ we hear in another scene, which comes towards the clocking off end of Marclay’s momentous day in the life of humanity. The relentless drive for knowledge and progress is acknowledged by another character in our fellow cast of millions; ‘when my clock stops, I die.’ Without awareness, arguably there is no point in living, which is why we need art. Marclay appeals equally to instinct and intellect, beating seconds out with a watch on railings and percussive fingertips, bodily ticks that are part of the film’s dramatic acceleration, moving in and out of consciousness. The ease and boredom of the familiar is contained in that measure of time too, part of the realism of The Clock, potentially experienced in the gallery for a full 24hrs or for a lifetime in the world outside.
Marclay’s prescribed installation space is a womb of imagination,a submerged twilight world somewhere between cinema, gallery, sacred and domestic space, punctuated by rows of identical white Ikea couches. The light from the screen creates an otherworldly glow and the movement of people coming and going, mirrors the progression of arrivals and departures on screen. Coming from the winding, packed queue outside, you plunge into the dark, finding your way to an available seat with the 21 x 12 foot (6.4 x 3.7m) flickering screenlight to guide you. There are jostled whispers and negotiation, sometimes finding yourself uncomfortably positioned in three seated combination with pairs of visitors. It made me wonder how British I’d become and if other screenings around the globe carried their own nuanced etiquette. In joining the audience and sharing viewing space normally made more comfortable and anonymous by individually designated seats, lines between public and private domains blur.There is also the blur of time we encounter in the near dark, a meeting of generations and memories, invoking human ritual, storytelling and spirituality from prehistoric cave to modern auditorium. The audience is part of the rhythm of the work and the ingenious way it constructs moments of identification and clarity. In the same way that listening to music is direct, immersive and abstract, there’s a sense of going with the flow, being half lead by the regularity of time and entering alternate levels of awareness. That hypnotic quality feels like a comfort and release from the crazy spin of 21stCentury life outside, doubly so circa 2018. We’ve grown accustomed to anavalanche of recycled shows, images and Gifs via You Tube, Vimeo, social media and streaming services. The superlative difference here is the structural intricacy of Marclay’s work and its emotive core, led by the his chosen discipline.
Marclay’s clock is a great architectural and cinematic symphony that moves the viewer in unexpected ways, harnessing every moment of the metaphorical ‘flicker.’ It’s the ephemeral nature of light in cinema and the slippage between frames. The illusion of continuity, the gap between each stilled image that has us reaching and constructing the next, to continue the sequence because our lives depend on it. That imaginative, unconscious pause is something that no device outside can deliver. The hook or Hookland between frames is the substance and soul of film. Like a great composer, Marclay weaves breath-taking open variations on themes, the product of editing and sound design honed over a 35-year career. Marclay described the editing process as “the most fun…finding connecting bridges…cutaways where one action happens in one film and the reaction happens in another. Someone opens a door, enters a different world, a different film. These editing tricks are used to create this sense of continuity, this flow, and this make believe…”
When The Clockwon the Golden Lion at the 2011 Venice Biennale, Marclay thanked the jury for giving the work ‘its fifteen minutes of fame.’ Our Western consumer culture has made pursuit of that ‘15 minutes’ a way of life, in ways Warhol never envisaged. My feeling is that The Clock, in concept, execution and reception, constitutes more than a fleeting moment of recognition. Marclay’s sublime and illuminating work brings the truth of fiction resoundingly into focus. Like the observation that ‘bad things last longer than good’, my time with The Clock ended too soon. Very few people will be able to watch the whole 24 hrs, with only a handful of screenings outside normal gallery hours. Though I long to see the descent into Noir and where Marclay’s film leaves the audience in the final frame, I wouldn’t want to experience The Clock any other way but as intended, in an expansive, communal space of the artist’s making. ‘Can you give my time back to me?’ asks Samuel L Jackson in one scene, no, you can never have it back, but for me The Clock is time well spent. Out of my life’s memories, of all the art I’ve ever seen, this moment is true. I know because I leave the darkened room with tears in my eyes and cross the threshold,awakened to the world outside seeming brighter. Where there is art like this, there is awareness and hope.