Time Passes Slowly (or Quickly?): Christian Marclay’s The Clock

By: Patrick Grant

Time is never time at all. A time for every purpose under heaven. It’s time time time that you love. One more time. One last time. Time and time again. Time after time. Business time. Party time. I’m a time bomb, baby! This time, it’s going to be different. Time of the season. Time isn’t holding up. Time isn’t after us. Same as it ever was. Time is what keeps everything from happening at once.

When thinking about the best way to discuss Marclay’s sprawling film collage, I came up with a few cheesy ideas. Firstly, I was going to discuss the history of the timepiece, with reference to other interesting clock-related projects. This proved both daunting and boring, not so much because the mechanics of the clock or the actual scientific and philosophical roots of the study of time are boring, but mostly because what is truly interesting about time is its inscrutability. Whether you subscribe to the view that time is a dimension in which events achieve sequence and thus meaning or that time is merely the way human beings understand and measure events, it cannot be denied that the question of time and it’s passing is always posed because it must be. It cannot be unposed based on the most basic tenets of our perception. Through devices from sundials and water clocks through to digital and atomic clocks, not to mention weightier offerings like Marclay’s creation or Danny Hillis’ Clock of the Long Now, we cannot escape the spectre that structures, or is perhaps structured by, both when we meet for breakfast and what the earth will look like after we are dead in the dust.

The event is past, but present.

The event is past, but present.

The Clock is, among many other things, a 24-hour collage of film footage in which every minute of the passing day is catalogued by a reference to that specific time in another work of art. The sheer amount of work that it must have taken to construct such a thing is downright impressive. Marclay himself is no stranger to altering physical artifacts in order to create technological collage; his experiments with turntables in live performance and physically manipulating vinyl records to create original compositions out of pre-existing music provide the avant-garde’s noisy foil to the development of early scratching and beatmatching work of Kool Herc, Grandwizard Theodore, Grandmaster Flash and numerous other titans of turntablism. His musical contribution is generally unsung and his clearly very successful move into progressive filmic art says something perhaps previously unconsidered about the parallels between the two art forms as expressions of the same historically editorial principle.

Each minute that ticks by on the face of the The Clock is an experience of quick juxtaposition. While all the clips are from fictional films, some extraordinarily famous and some less so, Marclay jumps decades and genres with ease, as if to state these events are all equal. A death penalty scene from The Green Mile moves easily into a small argument from Sleuth into the iconic lighting strike from Back to the Future. As an aspiring cinephile, though still a fairly newbish rube in many respects, I was completely blown away by the diversity of selections and the number of scenes that actually had no conversational reference to the time but merely showed a watch or clock in the background of the event with the hands perfectly arranged for Marclay’s purpose. I was similarly impressed by how accessible the piece manages to be for someone without an encyclopedic knowledge of film, referencing Hollywood blockbusters in the same breath (or minute, I suppose) as a black and white film in German. The moment at which something truly avant-garde is created has to be when a piece with weighty and valid philosophical implications, as well as a decent amount of emotional and thoughtful expression, can be watched even just for entertainment by someone who doesn’t give a shit about art. The Clock can be consumed actively or passively: that is, it’s both incredibly intricate and remarkably simple, suspending its true effect and success somewhere between those two poles.

Any discerning listener of the late-80s early 90s heyday of sample-based hip-hop production is familiar with the jarring exuberance of a master collage like Public Enemy’s “Fear of a Black Planet” or the Beastie Boys’ “Paul’s Boutique,” where elements different in source and popularity bubble to the surface only to be overrun in the next second by another sample, the next note in the melody, from a different artist, decade and genre. While this can’t be accomplished in music anymore without lawsuits or just having a swimming pool filled with treasure, Marclay has essentially refined and modified the same principle for film, though instead of taking melody and song for his subject, he rebuilds and recontextualizes the measure of time itself. The resulting piece is nothing short of breathtaking: a comment on how pop culture’s history, in which we drown, can’t really help but colour even the most mundane moment of our every day but seems to unite us in mutual emotion, thoughtful and functional, as though all of Western experience were nothing but a shared cinematic experience. Maybe it is.


This column was originally published in Offerings zine November 2012.

2 responses to “Time Passes Slowly (or Quickly?): Christian Marclay’s The Clock

  1. “While this can’t be accomplished in music anymore without lawsuits or just having a swimming pool filled with treasure, Marclay has essentially refined and modified the same principle for film, though instead of taking melody and song for his subject, he rebuilds and recontextualizes the measure of time itself”

    This kind of blew my mind.

  2. Aw, shucks. If you ever get the opportunity to go somewhere that they’re screening The Clock, it will also blow your mind. There’s no beginning or end. You have to enter while the movie is in full swing and while other people are already watching it. It dislocates you right away. It only ends when you decide to stop looking, or I guess when they move the screening to another place. It’s really insanely individual and humbling to experience.

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