It’s not rare to find yourself glancing at your watch during a video-art show. A new video projection called The Clock, by the Swiss-American artist Christian Marclay, saves you the trouble. Every minute that you look at the piece, which runs for 24 hours, you know precisely how long you’ve been looking. The amazing thing is that at minute 13, or 43, or 192, you only wish you had longer to spend.
Last Friday night, at 11:47, there were something like a hundred people lingering over the work in a blacked-out space at Paula Cooper Gallery in New York, where it is getting its first American screening. (It premiered in London in the fall.) The dozens of visitors in line outside were not amused at the wait. Of course, once their turn came, they stayed in just as long.
That’s because The Clock is a true masterpiece, however peculiar a word that may be. The piece invites extended contemplation, and repays it. It almost compels it. The time you spend with The Clock is also part of what the piece is about.
Marclay’s conceit is simple: He has spliced together thousands of clips from hundreds of films, new and old, Hollywood and art house, Oscar-winning and B-movie. And each clip either tells the time of day explicitly, through the glimpse of a watch or a clock face or, say, the ringing of church bells, or it indicates the passing of time more obliquely. At one point, the clicking of an old man’s cane stands in for a ticking second hand. At another, slanting morning light indicates an a.m. moment. And at each passing instant of each fleeting clip, the time you see on-screen matches the real time you read off your watch. (Last weekend’s 24-hour screening repeats again this Friday morning at 10, and the Friday following. On other days the gallery is open its regular hours, so you only get to see Marclay’s breakfast-to-dinnertime clips.)
“It’s been wild,” said late-night gallery attendant Mary Ancel, who, with midnight coming on, had clicked-in 507 visitors since 6 p.m. (Some 258 more had gone through by 10 a.m. the next day.) “People go in and expect to stay for 15 minutes, and they come out an hour later. One guy came out at 8 and said he’d been inside since 2.”
The piece is more compelling, and also subtler, than any description can capture, despite its simple, almost mechanical premise. The Clock doesn’t only tell the time via movies; it’s about how time gets lived in movies and portrayed back to us. You could even argue that we learn to live out time partly by having seen how it plays out in film.
“It’s been wild. People go in and expect to stay for 15 minutes, and they come out an hour later. One guy came out at 8 and said he’d been inside since 2.”
Visit the piece in the morning, and you see Humphrey Bogart preparing a grapefruit breakfast for his moll, or an actress putting on deodorant. At 5:37 p.m. (by the screen, not my watch), you see dinner being readied and workers kicking back. Visit a bit after midnight, and you see John Turturro, in the Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink, as an insomniac author hunting for words, as well as Connery as 007, wreaking havoc with late-night explosives. I hope to visit again at 4 a.m., to see what movie life feels like by the dawn’s early light. (I’d love to have this piece as my living-room clock, keeping time on my TV.)
Because of Marclay’s incredible editing skills, the whole piece feels more like a feature film, tightly knit and paced, than like a bitty highlights reel. A figure from an old black-and-white hears a clock strike and glances off-screen to get a look at it; the next shot, from an entirely different film in color, seems to pan to the clock in question. When a man in one clip glances right, you can be sure that the woman in the next shot will look back at him from the left, although the movies they are in might be decades apart. At one point, Whoopi Goldberg, in the 1980s, seems to be calling a 1970s Jane Fonda. (It took Marclay and six assistants 2 1/2 years to gather and then edit the clips.) And all along, an indescribably complex collage of movie music and noises binds the whole package together. Marclay first became known for making art about sound, and it’s still where he’s at his most impressive. With The Clock, it’s worth spending a few dozen minutes taking stock of the soundtrack.
“I loved it. I could have stayed all night,” said Franckie Diago, a production designer from New York on her way out a bit after midnight last Friday, after only 75 minutes of viewing. (All 60 seats had been taken, and her back was aching from sitting on the floor. Many other visitors were standing.) At 1:07 a.m., Aliza Edelstein emerged from the screening room. “I was here exactly 12 hours ago,” she said, commenting on the difference between the feel of afternoon and night in Marclay’s piece. Edelstein, a 21-year-old intern at a Chelsea gallery, had first come for a half-hour during her lunch break. She returned for a late-night date with her boyfriend Scott Janes, newly arrived from Boston. “I trust her judgment,” Janes said. He added that Marclay’s miracle proved that he’d been right to.
The Clock is at the Paula Cooper Gallery in New York through Feb. 19. Visit www.paulacoopergallery.com.
Blake Gopnik writes about art and design for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He previously spent a decade as chief art critic of The Washington Post and before that was an arts editor and critic in Canada. He has a doctorate in art history from Oxford University, and has written on aesthetic topics ranging from Facebook to gastronomy.