As part of The Economist's artists at work series, we visit Christian Marclay, a conceptual artist on deadline ...
From THE ECONOMIST online
Christian Marclay, a visual artist and musician, is finishing a masterpiece. He is cooped up in his walk-in-closet of a studio on the fourth floor of a townhouse in Clerkenwell, London. He has calluses on his fingers from clicking a mouse—or mice, rather, as his 24-hour video, “The Clock”, is too big to be loaded onto a single computer. Sometimes he bandages a couple of fingers together to stave off carpal tunnel syndrome. Who would have thought that making concept-driven art would be so physical?
“The Clock” is a montage of clips from several thousand films, structured so that the resulting artwork always conveys the correct time, minute by minute, in the time zone in which is it being exhibited. The scenes in which we see clocks or hear chimes tend to be either transitional ones suggesting the passage of time or suspenseful ones building up to dramatic action. “If I asked you to watch a clock tick, you would get bored quickly,” explains the artist in remarkably neutral English. “But there is enough action in this film to keep you entertained, so you forget the time, but then you're constantly reminded of it.” Born in America, Mr Marclay was raised in Switzerland speaking French; he still tends to drop the “s” off plural nouns.
Artworks based on appropriation sometimes get ensnarled in copyright issues. “Technically it's illegal,” Mr Marclay says of his elaborate re-mix of cinematic snippets, “but most would consider it fair use.” His work ultimately pays homage to the films, particularly the actors. “When a scene is well acted, you could look at it 100 times and never get bored. You see the flaws but understand the talent. It's such a vulnerable profession,” he says. In “The Clock”, actors crop up at different times of their career. “Their ages offer an interesting twist on time. The work is a giant memento mori.”
Mr Marclay has been working on this project for two years, using Final Cut Pro software. He used to limit his editing to five hours a day, but he has been putting in ten-to-12 hours seven days a week for months. Such are the occupational hazards of making such a lengthy video. “Twenty-four hours is the logical result of the idea. Three hours would be silly,” explains the artist who might spend a whole day working on one minute of video, fitting together ten clips. “I get into a zone when editing. I forget about the time. A whole day will go by. A whole week,” he says emphatically, aware of the irony.
Six research assistants work from home watching films in search of relevant sequences. For a while they scoured Bollywood films but found little time-marking. “I guess it's a different tradition, with a different concept of time,” explains Mr Marclay. By contrast, London's “Big Ben” is ubiquitous. “It's the most iconic clock,” he says. “Regardless of the provenance of the film, if the action takes place in London, Big Ben appears.”
“I have a strange relationship with my researchers because I don't see them,” says Mr Marclay. “They drop off their footage at White Cube, then Paul, my main assistant, brings me the catch of the day.” Paul Anton Smith works full-time, taking care of the technological and logistic aspects of “The Clock”. White Cube, a gallery in London, and Paula Cooper Gallery in New York have provided the budget. Mr Marclay doesn't know the cost of the production. “Ask Jay,” he advises, referring to Jay Jopling, owner of White Cube. “It's cheap compared to fabricating monumental bronze sculptures.” The piece will be available as an edition of six with two artist's proofs, for sale to museums and private collectors.
Mr Marclay has edited most of “the pm hours”, with the exception of a few holes. “I thought 3am would be hard but it's pretty tight now; 5am is the most difficult,” he says. “In the movies, people rarely sleep. They are sweating, having nightmares. The phone rings or someone is waking them up.” Mr Marclay wants to finish 4am today, then he'll skip 5am to work on 6am. He hopes to be done by next week so he can start polishing up the transitions. “Every hour has its own timeline. The transitions are tricky because a lot happens on the hour, but it's fun when you get it right.”
Throughout the summer Mr Marclay has been sending discs loaded with segments of “The Clock” to Quentin Chiappetta, a Brooklyn-based sound engineer with whom he has worked for over 20 years. Mr Chiappetta equalises the disparately mastered soundtracks of the many film clips. “Sound is the glue that holds the pieces together,” explains Mr Marclay, who will also have spent several weeks in Mr Chiappetta's MediaNoise digital audio post-production studio before the work is completed.
Mr Marclay sees himself as a one-man operation. “I have people helping me but, in the end, I do the edits,” he says. “I sit here every day like a writer in front of a typewriter. It's about routine and process.” Mr Marclay collaborates more expansively on other kinds of project. His Whitney solo show, titled “Festival” (on view until September 26th), involves daily performances in which musicians come into the museum and interpret his scores. “With music projects,” he says, “I can be more hands off.”
Mr Marclay's “Video Quartet” (2002) was a four-screen, 15-minute projection that pushed the technology and involved laborious editing. By contrast, many marathon art films seem lazy. Andy Warhol's “Empire” is an eight-hour, silent, static view of the famous Manhattan skyscraper; Douglas Gordon's “24-hour Psycho” is a slowed down version of Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 Hollywood thriller. “Great art doesn't necessarily require a lot of work,” says Mr Marclay. “Sometimes an easy gesture can be conceptually strong.” In this instance, however, intelligent toil will, quite literally, win the day.
“The Clock” runs on an eternal loop, with no beginning or end. It will be on view for 24 hours at White Cube Gallery from 6pm, October 14th to 6pm on the 15th. The work will also be shown in “British Art Show 7” at Nottingham Contemporary from October 23rd, then in Seoul, Korea, at the Samsung Museum in December.
Picture credit: White Cube