The Clock, Marking Time

May 12, 2012
The Clock, 2010 single-channel video, 24 hours, photo by Christian Marclay
The Clock, 2010 single-channel video, 24 hours, photo by Christian Marclay

Switzerland gave us the cuckoo clock, and Swiss-American artist, Christian Marclay, has created the most preposterous time-piece in the history of art. The Clock is such a unique artifact it defies all but the most impressionistic responses. This is obvious from Zadie Smith’s essay in the brochure published for the work’s showing at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Smith gives us a superior quality rave – a fan’s love letter to a piece that has to be experienced to be truly appreciated.

Although the same might be said about any work of art, it is depressing how often descriptions and interpretations turn out to be more stimulating than the real thing. Not so The Clock, a mesmeric, immersive, cinematic montage that heightens our consciousness of time while holding us rooted to the spot. This is almost the antithesis of the average video installation, in which we stand watching nothing much happen for seconds, minutes or even hours. During this vigil we are plagued by the same thoughts: “How long does this go on? What’s the point? Shouldn’t I be doing something more useful?”

Fortunately, these concerns are addressed in the MCA’s selection from their permanent collection, with labels providing unusually precise information about video screening times and durations. Curator, Glenn Barkley, tells me this is part of a “common sense prevails” approach – a radical departure for this reborn institution.

When we enter The Clock we know that the film goes for exactly 24 hours, with each glimpse of a clock on screen being synchronized with real time. The work is a monumental feat of editing, combining extracts from thousands of films. He may not have drawn on all of them, but Marclay reputedly obtained clearances for 5,000 movies, making this also one of the great achievements in copyright law.

Having begun to watch it is very hard to tear oneself away. The sequence of quick, unpredictable cuts generates a form of low-level suspense. We never know if a particular film will be reprised or disappear forever. Famous actors slip on and off screen. Just as we’ve begun to remember the name of the film we are watching, it switches to another, and the process begins anew. There is also a game being played between fictional time – which advances a plot, and actual time – glimpsed in the background to a shot.

The viewer is constantly torn between observation and reflection. To stop looking is to miss something, but even as the shot changes one is still thinking about previous frames. Lurking somewhere in the background is the thought: “What a lot of films we all watch… How much of our lives are spent locked in the grasp of the glowing screen?”

Sean Cordeiro and Clare Healy crystallised this question with an installation at the 2009 Venice Biennale consisting of a huge monolith of video cassettes. To watch all of them would have occupied an average human life span. Their total was 175,218 cassettes, a big advance on Marclay’s 3,000 – 5,000 films.

Despite its magnetic properties, very few people have watched The Clock in its entirety. If you have the urge, and the time, you can start watching at 10 am on a Thursday and spent the night at the museum. I’m not sure what arrangements are made for meals or toilet breaks, but you won’t be able to pause the film.

The Clock is the perfect foil for the first curator-driven exhibition at the new MCA, Marking Time. The curator is Rachel Kent, and the theme is simultaneously the most complex, abstract of subjects – and the most banal. Time, which controls and regulates all aspects of human life, remains completely beyond our control. Outside the fantasies of science fiction we are the slaves of this relentless, cosmic mechanism. We can use time productively or waste it, with a visit to the MCA representing a delicate balance between both poles.

To put together an exhibition on the subject of time is a way of biting off more than one can masticate, and Kent seems slightly overwhelmed by the magnitude of this self-imposed task. She has some difficulty overcoming the purely banal bits. “Time and duration are persistent themes in art and literature,” she tells us.

This is followed by the startling proposition: “Notions of time expressed through art are many and varied.” And so on, though thankfully not into infinity.

Time is such an ungraspable concept that in order to discuss it, let alone visualise it, one needs to divide it into various aspects, with images to match. For instance, in his book, Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle (1987), Stephen Jay Gould examined the two most common historical metaphors for time. The first suggests that everything that has happened will happen again, in an endless circle: empires will rise and fall and rise; oceans become deserts become oceans. The second introduces the idea of progress, with the passing of time bringing a constant, tangible increase in our knowledge and mastery of the world.

These different views generate contrary philosophies, the former being fatalistic and mystical; the latter, optimistic and rationalist. Think of the Buddhists versus the Protestants. In the realm of contemporary art the rationalist world-view (time’s arrow) is not at all popular. It is almost an article of faith that an artist will oppose the verities of science, even while making opportunistic use of advances in technology.

While scientists view the world as a series of problems to be solved on the way to a utopian future, artists are connoisseurs of the numinous. Life, death and the universe are mysteries to be embraced and celebrated, not puzzles that admit of any solution.

Of the eleven artists in this show, almost every one could be seen a critic of the rationalist world-view. Katie Paterson may fire off canons full of confetti representing gamma ray explosions in deep space, or ask us to listen to a version of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata as bounced off the surface of the moon, but she remains a celebrant of randomness. Tom Nicholson covers an entire wall with a list of political borders created since 1901, but only to emphasise the ephemeral nature of our diplomatic machinations.

Perhaps only Daniel Crooks could be seen as a scientist in artist’s clothing, with his video installations that dissect human movement like a latter-day Edweard Muybridge. The difference is that Muybridge reduced movement to a series of still images while Crooks records the fluid after-traces of every action, making his characters melt and dematerialise before our eyes. Regardless of its anodyne title, Crooks’s Static no. 12 (seek stillness in movement) (2009-10), is probably the most impressive piece in this exhibition. I’ve seen it many times, but the image of an elderly Chinese man doing Tai chi who seems to split into multiple selves, is always arresting. It gives concrete form to the movement of the spirit, or perhaps that ambiguous quality, “qi”, meaning breath, life-force or energy flow.

Crooks’s Static no. 12, 2010, HD video, 16:9, 05:28 min, Stereo

Two other artists who provide a concretisation of time’s passing, are Lindy Lee, with a series of works that record the action of falling rain drops and the slow application of a soldering iron to large sheets of paper; and Gulumbu Yunupingu, whose bark paintings and poles are detailed charts of the heavens, filled with clusters of tiny stars. There is nothing about either artist’s work that suggests any great conceptual sophistication. On the contrary, the power of these pieces springs from their indifference to the currents of time: the patient activity of mark-making undertaken in a meditative state with no concern for the passing minutes and hours. This invites a reciprocal lack of haste on behalf of the viewer.

With most of the other works in Marking Time, the conceptual element is so pronounced it feels like an obstacle between the spectator and the art – as if there were an invisible wall of ideas to be negotiated before one’s eyes come into play. In traditional MCA fashion these pieces are generally more fascinating for the artist than for the viewer. The ideas may be seductive but the visual aspect is profoundly uninviting, and without that necessary lure most of us will simply walk away. While The Clock may be a supreme entertainment, nothing makes us more conscious of time than spending it with works of art that seem persistently, deliberately obtuse.

Christian Marclay: The Clock, Marking Time, Museum of Contemporary Art, March 24 to June 03, 2012

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, May 12, 2012