By Clement Lai
In recent years, there is no doubt that Christian Marclay’s The Clock (2010) has been one of the most celebrated contemporary artworks, receiving rave reviews worldwide in London, New York City, Los Angeles, Boston, Ottawa and now Sydney. In last year’s 54th Venice Biennale, Marclay was crowned the Golden Lion for best artist for The Clock. Mr John Macdonald, a filmmaker and writer, describes himself not as a contemporary art exhibition habitué, returned to see The Clock for the fourth time and had waited for an hour and a half in the cold outside the Paula Cooper Gallery in New York City. Even the art critics Waldemar Januszczak of Britain’s The Sunday Times and The New York Times Roberta Smith have praised The Clock as the year’s best exhibition. Why is it that Marclay’s The Clock is so successful and has aroused such enormous interest from the general public that they queue outside galleries and museums to see it, while being revered by the arts industry? In this article, I will examine the constitution of The Clock and the reason for its popularity.
As a collagist, Marclay expressed his interest in manipulating existing materials, including sound, images and moving pictures to put them together to create a new meaning. Marclay stated that his governing impulse as an artist has been to take ‘images and sounds that we are all familiar with and reorganise them in a way that is unfamiliar.’ For example, the sculpture, Tape Fall (1989) was a reel to reel tape player perched on a ladder playing water sounds, however the takeup reel was missing and the tape cascaded to the ground.
He also remixed the music and sound, turning it inside out, bringing foreward crackles, retrograded reversed sounds and hisses. Telephones (1995) was a cinematic sequence of people dialing, phones ringing and people answering.
The Clock, which premiered in London’s White Cube in 2010, is a 24 hour film that is compiled from thousands of fragments from films made over a century.
In each clip, as little as a fraction of a second, or a glimpse of a clock face or watch, or dialogue about time is synchronized to the real time. Albeit these fragments are narratively incoherent, they have one connection, which is the central conceptual idea of this masterpiece: time. This artwork challenges and juxtaposes our philosophical perception of time, Symbolic Time, which is marked by clock, and Imaginary Time, which is our subjective idea of length, of duration. While you are viewing The Clock, you are constantly reminded of the time, creating some anxiety and tension within. It is evokes the Capitalist motto, ‘time is money’. You could ask why are so many people prepared to spend their time queued for up to an hour to watch The Clock for hours?
One of the most significant reasons is the diversity of genres that make up The Clock that evokes memories for viewers connecting to their daily life. These flashes may encompass humor, horror, sex, anger, distress, love and in particularly death, drawing on the emotions of the viewer. These elements are essential components of reflection on life and mortality, which is implied in this 24 hour artwork. Furthermore, these fragments connect to day-to-day life in our capitalist society. At 8am the clips feature people waking up, having breakfast and rushing to work. They convey a sense of urgency for every moment, people waiting for the bank to open in a panic, kids rushing out of the classroom, a woman who refuses to pay for her pizza that’s passed its time, a fight over late afternoon tea, rushing home after work to trim a tree, men and women hurrying to meet appointments and the most explicit dialogue, ‘I’m late’, ‘You’re late’, ‘It’s too late’. These kinds of fragments echo events and struggles that viewers face every day. This essential connection enables viewers to participate in the artwork and make it fell relevant to them, hence their interest in viewing it again and again.
Another connection that stimulates viewers’ interest is the recognition of the source of the clips. As an American artist, Marclay predominantly composed The Clock from popular Hollywood films and stars, for example, Fred MacMurray in The Apartment, Joseph Gordon in Brick, Matthew Broderick in Election and Harold Lloyd in Safety Last.
Marclay extracted the excerpts from films dating as far back, as the first projected motion picture by the Lumiere Brothers 115 years ago. These extensive sources, from black and white and silent film to contemporary film, allow people from different age ranges to find their own connection with the artworks.
This allows for recognition and connection is to not only the character and the film name, but time and place and personal experience with which you associate that particular film with. Then after this little flash back, you would sigh, ‘time flies like an arrow’. The young and older face of the same actor throughout time also confronts the viewer. Starts such as Orson Welles, Robert De Niro, Edward G. Robinson, Sean Connery, Anthony Hopkins, Marcelo Mastroianni, Gunnar Bjornstrand appear in The Clock at various points in their career. This juxtaposition stimulates viewers to trace back through their own memory and establish a profound sentimental connection with the artwork. Marclay includes clips from different languages such as French, German, Cantonese, and Thai, for example, Tony Leung in Infernal Affairs from Hong Kong.
A striking aspect of The Clock is the unexpected sequence of movie fragments. Contrasting with the logical narrative in ordinary movies, The Clock imposes enormous fractions, displaying merely the clock face. This both challenges the viewer and entices them to continue watching, waiting for connections to previous images.
The accessibility of The Clock attracts a diverse audience from a range of backgrounds and age groups. During the Modernism and Post-‐Modernism movement, artworks were quite often obtrusive and dehumanized for an audience of other artists, alienating many people. The Clock becomes accessible through the audiences ability to identify with scenes throughout. Furthermore, it does not require explanation, but becomes a personal experience to the viewer. Some might enjoy recognising the sources of the clips, some might recall the whole story of particular fragments, for some it might trigger personal memories. Whether personal, cultural or philosophical the work does not dictate to the viewer but is open to individual experience.
The success of Christian Marclay’s The Clock can be attributed to the diversity of film fragments from different genres pieced together with no narrative. This collage of film stimulates an extraordinary paradoxical enjoyment in the viewer without telling a story. The pleasure in viewing this work comes through recognition of source, time, place and experience with which the audience engages. As a contemporary artwork, Marclay’s The Clock both challenges and enlightens. It is definitely well worth taking the time to have a look.
 (Kennedy n.d.)
 (Westwood n.d.)
 (Zalewski n.d.)
 (Westwood n.d.)
 (Vitiello n.d.)
 (Franks n.d.)
Bradshaw, Peter. Christian Marclay’s The Clock: a masterpiece of our times, The Guardian: Film blog.
Cohen, David. “You Can’t Beat The Clock”: Christian Marclay at Paula Cooper, Art Critical Magazine.
Davis, Ben. Meditations on Christian Marclay’s “The Clock”, Artinfo Magazine.
Franks, Darwin. Memento Mori: Reflections on Time and Christian Marclay’s The Clock, The Mind Worm blog.
Kennedy, Randy. “The Clock” by Christian Marclay at Paula Cooper Gallery, New York Times.
Vitiello, Leslie Thornton and Stephen. Haber’s Art Reviews: Christian Marclay: The Clock, Haber Arts
Westwood, Matthew. Time Lord Christian Marclay is one to watch at the MCA, The Australian.
Zalewski, Daniel. How Christian Marclay created “The Clock”, The New Yorker.