~ Posted by Hazel Sheffield, July 24th 2012
A big part of the experience of seeing Christian Marclay's “The Clock” is the wait. At 6pm on a Saturday people queue impatiently outside the Lincoln Center in New York, where the video installation is currently showing, thinking they'll get in before their dinner reservations. They won’t. At midnight groups of twenty-somethings chat for two hours at a time, slurping beers wrapped in plastic bags. On Sunday morning, at 10am, broadsheet papers rustle as a new set of visitors inch slowly closer to the inside. When you finally enter the pitch-black cinema and settle on a stiff Ikea sofa, you are well aware that you have just spent a good part of your day in a queue. And for what?
Marclay's “The Clock” is made up of hundreds of fragments from movies that reveal somewhere on screen the actual time that it is in real life. At 6.40pm on Saturday evening, I saw Morpheus meeting Neo outside the Oracle's kitchen in “The Matrix”. On the wall behind them a clock reads 6.40. Twenty minutes later, Morgan Freeman in “Bruce Almighty” tells Jim Carrey, "It’s seven o’clock. You’re right on time.” A minute later a younger Freeman stands in a field in “Seven” and tells Kevin Spacey that it’s a minute past seven, to which Spacey replies, "It's almost time." And so on, across 24 hours of footage, the exact time is revealed by pocket watches, train platforms, car dashboards, wrists and dialogue.
Liberated from their particular moments in full-length movies, the clips Marclay uses become both ridiculous and sublime. Ridiculous, because they no longer tell the stories they were supposed to. Moments of tension, like Tom Cruise urging his taxi driver to hurry so that he can kill someone on cue in “Collateral”, frequently elicit the biggest laughs because they seem so melodramatic. But sublime because the tension ebbs and flows across many scenes, without much resolution, a lot like life.
According to the professor in the documentary class I took last year, the single most important requirement for a compelling film is narrative. Every week in class we would go over the same definitions of narrative, "point A to point B" and "change over time", until they were drummed into our minds. When we came to edit our documentary, my class partner and I used shots of clocks, set to music, as a rudimentary device to advance the narrative we had superimposed onto a story about a failing record shop in Greenwich Village, where really not much was going on anymore, at all.
Marclay achieves the opposite: he sacrifices many expertly crafted narratives in order to achieve real time. The result is addictive (people have been known to sit through the whole 24 hours) and disorientating. After emerging from an hour or so watching “The Clock”, real life outside the installation seems dream-like, and suddenly you notice clocks everywhere.
Also, entry is free. So the only thing visitors spend, while they wait for their turn inside, is time.
Christian Marclay’s “The Clock” is at the Lincoln Center until August 1st and returns to New York, at the Museum of Modern Art, this autumn.
Hazel Sheffield is the assistant editor of Columbia Journalism Review and a contributor to Intelligent Life. Her recent posts for the Editors' Blog include Cristina Kirchner doth protest and Art of the Fair