March 2012

Arts & Letters

'The Clock' by Christian Marclay

By Luke Davies
'The Clock' by Christian Marclay, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 29 March to 3 June 2012

The Clock’s joys are as delightful as they are improbable. Though it’s usually described as a video installation, I prefer to think of it as a majestic, circular film (it is exactly 24 hours long). It demands of its viewers their stamina, repaying them with a singularly interesting experience. Christian Marclay, who surely harnessed some rather obsessive–compulsive tendencies in constructing this remarkable piece, did the hard work. For the audience, all that remains is to let The Clock wash over us: its seconds becoming minutes becoming a cascade of hours.

Marclay – and, apparently, any number of bleary-eyed assistants – sifted through thousands of films, retaining any clips in which a clock or watch face can be seen. From this body of eligible ‘moments’ he built the work, a kind of hallucinatory anti-narrative that not only unfolds in real time but is synchronised to real time. If there’s a scene in which an actor looks at a watch which reads 4.27, then you know that it’s exactly 4.27 outside in the real world. Every minute you’ll see at least one clock or watch but sometimes you’ll see up to four or five, sourced from several different films. At times Marclay’s obsessive finessings extend even as far as the second hand, gliding on a watch face, never out of sequence: in Marclay’s world, time moves relentlessly forward – or rather, around. 

The result of all this is quite bizarre. If good film allows us to become lost in a timeless space, The Clock does the opposite. Theoretically, you’re never fully immersed in the work, since at any moment you are made aware, literally to the second, of what time it is outside. The piece simultaneously puts you in the world and takes you away. Playing out like a Dadaist thriller, it creates a kind of deliciously heightened anxiety about the passage of time as it celebrates the glory of cinema. You actually feel time sliding like the hand of
a clock.

If you’re a cinephile, you get to play guessing games about the origin of certain clips – from Hollywood blockbusters through to the obscurest of European indies, ranging over 70 years of cinema history (though the clips tend to skew towards the last 30 or 40 years). You might also delight in the way one clip rubs up against the next, creating a kind of found poetry and surprising collisions. The cumulative effect becomes trance-like; the numbers, seen over and over in endless combinations, almost abstract. The more you see, the more awash you will be with pleasure. As Alec Guinness, dressed in a ship captain’s uniform, says in one fragment (from The Captain’s Paradise): “Everything … is very gratifyingly okay.”

Luke Davies

Luke Davies is a novelist, screenplay writer and poet. He is the author of Candy, God of Speed, Totem (the winner of the Age Book of the Year in 2004) and Interferon Psalms (winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2012). 

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