For his latest work, the Geneva-raised sound and video artist ransacked a century’s worth of movies to find scenes that contained references to time. Marclay then spent three years stitching together many thousands of tiny film snippets. The result – currently on show at Zurich’s Kunsthaus – is a sly and surprisingly moving video meditation on the nature of time called The Clock.
All this may seem like a strange project for someone who recently confessed in the New Yorker magazine that he knows next to nothing about cinema. But The Clock is not entirely new territory for this artist who left Switzerland for the States in his early twenties. In fact, he has spent the better part of the last three decades creating videos that make use of old footage, including the hilarious 1995 work Telephones and 2002’s Video Quartet.
What is new here, though, is the sheer scale of Marclay’s work. While most video installations run for a matter of minutes, The Clock lasts an epic 24 hours. It plays in real time and most of these scenes – although by no means all – feature either a watch or a clock that constantly reminds the viewer of the time.
The Clock is also synched with real time in the world outside - a clever hook, since it means that whatever time you begin viewing the piece, that time will also appear somewhere on the screen in front of you. This leads, in turn, to strange intersections with the world you have just left behind. If, like me, you start watching at a quarter past one in the afternoon, the on screen action will include, for instance, people eating lunch, or waking up with hangovers.
And if this all sounds rather facile, don’t fret. Marclay’s spirited editing rescues The Clock from banality. As you watch, you are flung from a 1950s bank heist into a 1970s news room, and then suddenly you are accosted by a snippet of a Denzel Washington thriller from 2009. Yes, it’s a little disconcerting at first, but you soon get into the flow.
Along the way, there are little jolts of pleasure that come from recognising a film you know or from trying to match a scene to a film. Then there is the fun that comes with spotting the wrist watch or grandfather clock or whatever sort of time piece happens to be on offer in each scene.
The Clock is also highly addictive. The longer you stay, the harder it is to leave, partly because, as with life, you don’t want to miss anything. You are also kept on the edge of your seat by the beautiful pacing of this film, sometimes frantic, at other moments languorous. Clocks tick. People wait for trains to arrive. Insects buzz. Often, too, expectations are subverted. Momentum builds and then fades to nothing. Climaxes are omitted.
Another clear element of the The Clock’s global success is its humour. Sometimes the film is funny simply because of the quality of Marclay’s source material; we have, for instance, a hilarious scene where comedian Harold Lloyd dangles high above a street from a clock in his 1923 film Safety Last. Far more often, though, the laughs result from Marclay’s canny juxtapositions.
Credit also has to go to Marclay and his audio co-conspirator Quentin Chiappetta for devising such a wonderful soundtrack. There’s a fantastic rhythm to the noise in The Clock, with sounds often carrying on from one scene to the next so that the viewer subconsciously begins to make associations which are not even there on the screen. There are constant echoes and reverberations.
And this is the subtler power of The Clock. At some stage, the action becomes less important and you can’t help pondering the nature of time. As Marclay told US talk show host Charlie Rose:
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"You become part of this experience because your schedule, your life will be somehow influenced by, or will become part of, this narrative. You become an actor in this film."
Christian Marclay’s The Clock is showing at Zurich’s Kunsthaus until September 9th. Tickets allowing entry to the installation and the gallery’s general collection cost 15 francs. There will also be a special night viewing from August 31st to September 1st.