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Ahead of its showing, the artist spoke to Juliet Jacques about the 24-hour work-in-real-time – widely acknowledged as a video art masterpiece

Since it opened at White Cube’s Mason’s Yard gallery in October 2010, Christian Marclay’s The Clock – a 24-hour montage of thousands of film and TV clips of clocks, edited together to show the actual time (to which it can be locally synchronized) has become the most popular video art work ever, playing to huge crowds (with long queues) across the world. It has also been critically acclaimed, winning the Golden Lion Award at the 2011 Venice Biennale – the Californian-born, Swiss-raised and now London-based Marclay sardonically invoked Andy Warhol, thanking the jury: ‘for giving The Clock its 15 minutes.’

Soon after its premiere, Paula Cooper Gallery and White Cube offered The Clock for sale in a limited edition of six, priced at USD$467,500 each. One was bought jointly by the Centre Pompidou, Paris, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and London’s Tate Modern, but Marclay – whose art and music career took off in New York in the late 1970s using records and turntables as instruments in making sonic collages, inspired by the Fluxus group’s assaults on musical materials – declined to screen it in the Tate’s Turbine Hall as its acoustics (and especially the 50 Hz hum from the turbine) would interfere with The Clock’s carefully edited soundtrack. Exhibitions (of which there have been 30, in various cities) and screenings of The Clock have often had a strong sense of occasion, with galleries promoting them in innovative ways. MoMA’s promotion in 2012 was especially notable, holding a silent disco on New Year’s Eve where people could dance to DJ sets while ringing in the new year with the film, with @TheClockAtMoMA account tweeting about the film in real time. Eight years after its premiere, its arrival at the Tate Modern feels like a real event: the 2016 opening of Tate Modern’s Blavatnik Building extension has provided a satisfactory (if not perfect) setting, and it will finally screen in the museum between 14 September 2018 and 20 January 2019.

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Christian Marclay, The Clock, 2010, single-channel video installation. Courtesy: © the artist; photograph: White Cube / Ben Westoby          

Marclay worked hard on the acoustics, assisting with curtains and carpets, having insisted on a space where people could ‘move in and out at their own pace, whenever they feel like it’. A cinema would not be practical, he tells me, firstly because ‘it’s not a film’ and secondly because ‘when someone is a row gets up, the whole row has to get up’, and obviously, nobody is going to watch all of The Clock in one sitting. Most likely, they will not even watch it sequentially, over several sittings, as they would with long narrative films such as Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980) by Rainer Werner Fassbinder or Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985). Clearly, Marclay has given much thought to how audiences will experience the work. Erika Balsom’s reflection that The Clock: ‘is not performance art, but shares with that genre the allure of the event’ is ‘very important to me’, he says – its playing out in real time forces the viewer ‘to decide how long you’ll stay, whether you’ll leave, if you can afford to be late for the next thing’ in contrast to the way most films ‘tend to put you into another state where you forget about time’ and get ‘totally sucked into the narrative on the screen’.

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Christian Marclay, The Clock, 2010, still from single-channel video installation. Courtesy: © the artist, White Cube, London and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York     

At its core, Marclay insists, The Clock is ‘a meditation on time’. Years of research went into finding clips where a character or clock gives the right time, but just as important are the ones between, which focus on moments of boredom, anticipation, frustration, or anxiety over being late. In their original contexts, these scenes are lulls, that at best, ‘build up tension to something more exciting’; here, they make up a catalogue of affects produced by time’s passing. Marclay acknowledges that many durational film works are boring (even Warhol’s 1963 Sleep or 1964 Empire, he says with a smile, aware that this is hardly iconoclastic), but he was as influenced by 1960s composition as much as conceptual art. ‘As John Cage said, if you listen, and keep listening, eventually you find something interesting. Hollywood films don’t engage you in that way – they just throw everything at you, so you don’t have that capacity to reflect, for self-discovery.’

Although most of Marclay’s footage is drawn from mainstream cinema, the idea of watching The Clock makes me think of a different tradition, that stretches back via Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho (1993), which slowed Alfred Hitchcock’s film to two frames per second rather than the usual 24, to the structural filmmakers of the ’60s and ’70s, who were aware that cinema could ever constitute a representation of reality, and never let viewers forget that they were watching an illusion. I mention the works of Canadian experimental filmmaker Michael Snow, especially La Région centrale (1971), which was shot over 24 hours but edited down, using a pre-programmed camera with a robotic arm that never made the same movement twice as it spun around a landscape in Northern Quebec. I saw this in London’s Close-Up Film Centre recently: I nearly left after five minutes, feeling like I’d got the film’s concept and didn’t need to see its remaining three hours, but soon surrendered any attachment to the way that narrative film, when made competently, gives some idea of where the viewer is in the story, and lost myself in its rhythms.

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Christian Marclay, The Clock, 2010, still from single-channel video installation. Courtesy: © the artist, White Cube, London and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York     

‘I think we’ve become extremely impatient’, says Marclay, recalling his experience of seeing La Région centrale in the ’70s. ‘It was really pleasant – it’s almost like a clock mechanism in a weird way, but it’s not specifically about time. Snow is always forcing you to consider film as a medium; The Clock is different from most of my work where I’m making you aware of the medium, especially with vinyl and sound. It follows the precise flow of time, yet there are multiple narratives, which jump around, cut and return at another moment. I’ve had the amazing privilege to perform with Michael Snow, as he’s also a musician – we both embrace and criticise the medium we use at the same time.’

The Clock also sits in a tradition of films made with found footage – one that has long appealed to me (and in which I have worked). I mention one of my favourite contemporary filmmakers, the New York-based Bill Morrison, whose works combine archive material, mostly from the silent era, with modern compositions by the likes of Gavin Bryars, Bill Frisell and Jóhann Jóhansson. Morrison’s films, however, rely on their unfamiliarity to play on the eerie distance between the filmed past and the present: Decasia (2002) was a collage of deteriorated nitrate film, showing how much of that past has literally disappeared; Who By Water (2007) combines an allusion to the Unetanneh Tokef with damaged footage of passengers staring at a camera before boarding a ship to invite viewers to contemplate the fate of these people, all of whom must now be dead.

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Christian Marclay, The Clock, 2010, still from single-channel video installation. Courtesy: © the artist, White Cube, London and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York     

Marclay feels that Morrison’s films resonate with his work with vinyl, but The Clock contrasts with Decasia in a crucial way: lots of its material will be instantly familiar, even to people who are not immersed in the history of cinema. For example, there are several clips of Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver (1976), a film whose power lies in its perfect pacing of Travis Bickle’s gradual, inevitable explosion. A moment that shows children playing from one of my favourite films – Fritz Lang’s M (1931), about a serial killer in Berlin – feels particularly ominous when you know that their days are numbered. ‘A lot of The Clock is about recognizing the film, or the actors’, Marclay replies, ‘because we see them at different points in their lives. When you see a familiar fragment, it triggers a whole film, even if you’re not thinking consciously about it. This also meant I couldn’t cheat [in the editing], for example by using midnight for noon, because people have seen the films, and would know if I was lying.’

It’s unlikely that any one person will recognize all the source material, but equally unlikely that anyone will recognize none. Marclay appreciates that while every person will have a different experience of watching any film, the volume and variety of the work’s footage amplifies that effect – and that it could have been made in an infinite number of ways. ‘Now, every time I see a film, I notice a clock – I could easily change a few scenes. I always feel like The Clock keeps on going – every time there’s a different installation, I have to make sure it’s presented in the right way. I still feel like working on it, even though it’s nearly a decade since it was released. It’s about the medium, but it’s also a celebration of the history of film. I made The Clock in the 2000s how different might it look like after another 50 years of cinema?’

Christian Marclay’s The Clock will be screened at Tate Modern, London, from 14 September 2018 – 20 January 2019. A series of overnight 24-hour screenings will take place on 6 October, 3 November and 1 December 2018.