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Summer 2011

Addictive Pleasures

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Wendy Lesser

The Clock
by Christian Marclay.
Paula Cooper Gallery, New York,
January 21–February 19, 2011.


Recently I’ve been reading the mystery novels of Jo Nesbø, a Norwegian writer whose publishers proclaim him on his book jackets to be “the next Stieg Larsson.” Actually, he’s better than that. His detective, Harry Hole, has some of the run-down, strangely appealing, relentlessly intuitive qualities of Henning Mankell’s marvelous Kurt Wallander, and the ensemble nature of the police work is reminiscent of what you’ll find in the best of all Scandinavian mysteries, the ten-volume Martin Beck series by Per Wahlöö and Maj Sjöwall. Nesbø’s writing is far better than Larsson’s, and Don Bartlett’s English translations render the prose almost transparent, so that it never gets in your way. But above all, the novels—which must be read in sequence, because each plot refers to and in some ways hinges upon the one before—are grippingly addictive. Progressing from Redbreast through Nemesis to Devil’s Star and beyond, I found myself unable to do anything other than read the particular Jo Nesbø book in which I was currently immersed. If I went to sleep with the novel unfinished, I would sometimes wake up at two or three in the morning and read until I was done. Regular detective novels, as everyone always points out, are a bit like candy; the Harry Hole series is more like heroin.

I thought of this as I was setting my alarm clock for 4:30 a.m. in order to catch a few more precious hours of Christian Marclay’s The Clock. On the surface, Marclay’s work and Nesbø’s have little in common. In place of the satisfyingly completed mystery, we get a series of chopped-off moments composed into an endless loop; instead of one increasingly familiar protagonist and his knowable colleagues, we get a near-infinitude of people, some utterly recognizable and others not; and instead of a single coherent artwork conceived and executed by a master plotter, we get a magpie collection of borrowed, edited moments, snipped from their original context and woven together into a new form.

But this is one smart magpie. There is nothing random-seeming about the order in which The Clock unfolds. On the contrary, this twenty-four-hour video collage has exactly the qualities—inevitability and surprise—that characterize all the best mystery plots. In borrowing from the universe of film and television moments that refer in some way to time, and in ordering these episodes (ranging in length from two or three seconds to just under a minute) in the precise sequence of a perfectly timed clock, Marclay has created a masterpiece that reaches out from its own moment and grabs us in ours.

The crucial ingredient—or one of them, at any rate—is the fact that The Clock’s time and ours are exactly synchronized. If you show up at the gallery at ten in the morning, when it opens on weekdays, it will be 10:00 a.m. on the screen; soon it will be 10:03, then 10:07, then perhaps 10:10. When I got there in the very early morning (on one of the weekends when the whole twenty-four hours were shown continuously), I was in time to catch the last of the middle-of-the-night, sleep-induced horror sequences. Next, from just before 6:00 to just after 7:00, came a series of alarm clocks (Groundhog Day made its requisite appearance). Then people had various kinds of breakfast for at least two hours, until eventually my growling stomach compelled me to leave for my own long-delayed meal. At certain hours—noon, say, or midnight, or the nine a.m. and five p.m. slots that bracket the work day—there will be a cavalcade of repeated references to the same hour: a series of quick shots of clocks, time-card-punching, alarm-ringing, bell-tolling, marches, parades, fraught encounters (think High Noon), drunken celebrations, and so forth, all marking that single well-defined moment over the course of an elapsed minute or more. At such times the pace of the video picks up and we get a crescendo of rapid-fire edits; at other hours, the more diffused largos and andantes of regular life prevail.

The musical metaphor is no flight of fancy. A great part of The Clock’s appeal is that, although it is clearly a film, its progression is somehow musical in nature. Even the process of watching it (you are ushered into a darkened room that seats about eighty people, and the film is always already in progress; soon you may be able to upgrade from your uncomfortable standing position or awkward place on the floor to a real seat; ultimately, though, you will tire even of that comfort and will leave, ceding the seat to someone else) is a bit like going to an outdoor rock concert or a late-night club or the Royal Albert Hall Proms, where the audience may be constantly in motion, resolutely on its own schedule, even as the band plays gallantly on. But The Clock is also like music in that its key moments of interest are local and particular: there may be high points and denouements, crescendos and decrescendos, but what keeps you watching, moment to moment, is the sense that something fascinating is unfolding bar by bar, second by second. Marclay has always been a highly musical artist—the best video of his that I had seen before this featured the four-screen coordination of movie-music sounds and images—but here he raises that composerly talent to Wagnerian levels, giving us an artwork that is too long for any individual to take in at one sitting.

The Paula Cooper Gallery did run a few round-the-clock showings, but since you weren’t allowed to sleep in the screening room (guards patrolled the premises and ushered people in or out), nobody, to my knowledge, spent the whole twenty-four hours in front of the screen. I logged about seven hours myself: from 10:15 to 12:15 one weekday morning, then 4:30 to 6:00 at the end of the same day, and finally 5:40 to 9:15 on the last Saturday morning of the artwork’s run. Each time I was pulled out by external circumstances (a phone call I had to make, the closing of the gallery, my desperate need for breakfast), and it’s by no means clear to me how long I might have stayed if I had not had my hand forced. I am still trying to figure out what kept me there, repeatedly and continuously entranced.

Part of it had to do with the astonishing perfection of the editing. Marclay had clearly set himself a number of rules to follow, and he abided by all of them. Each sequence of film, however short, had to derive from the time of day at which we saw it: there was no substituting five p.m. for five a.m., or any cheating of that sort. (There were a few purposeful exceptions to this pattern, and they occurred approximately but not exactly once an hour. We would glimpse a clock showing the wrong time—10:50, say, instead of 11:50—inserted as if to keep us on our mental toes, or perhaps as a way of letting us know that even in Marclay’s strictly designed universe, exceptions were possible. Occasionally he also included sequences that had no direct reference to time, but instead alluded more generally to mortality: a very old person crossing a street, for instance, or a family visiting a cemetery.) Visually, each clip had to appear exactly as it was in its original movie or television show: if blurring or color distortions or superimpositions occurred, you knew it had been done by the original director. Aurally, however, Marclay felt free to play with time, so that sometimes the soundtrack of one film would continue over to the next sequence, or would precede its own visual appearance. And this weaving together of sound was accompanied by a brilliant (sometimes too brilliant) emphasis on splicing, so that a character from one movie would open a door and a character from a different movie would walk through it, or a woman would lift a curtain to look out a window and we would then see a totally different film’s outside view.

Sometimes, in the course of twenty or thirty or even ninety minutes, we would come back to the same film we had been watching before: a ransom scene approaching closer and closer to the deadline, a time-travel experiment before and after it bore results, a bank heist at various points in its plot. (Thriller, science-fiction, and crime stories provided much of Marclay’s best material, of course, because such plots depend heavily on the precise chronicling of time.) Often I would find myself getting fully involved in these little stories, only to be summarily yanked away to a new one, never to return to that old plot again. But the human capacity for wonder and curiosity is such that one can be distracted almost immediately into a new plot, placated by the possibility of new questions to be asked and answered.

One of the recurring questions posed by The Clock is “Where am I, and when?” On one level, you know the “when” to the exact minute—4:35 has just been announced, it will soon be 4:40—but on another level you are totally at sea, for as each scene change takes place, you don’t know whether you’re in 1940 or 2002, England or Germany, a small town in America or the center of Manhattan. As the splice occurs, you scramble to locate yourself using all the obvious and less-obvious clues: black-and-white versus color film, the women’s hairstyles and makeup, the languages people are speaking, the way their houses look, distant glimpses of Big Ben or other famous monuments, the body styles of automobiles, the size and appearance of telephones, specific street signs or shop signboards—and, above all, the ages of the actors you recognize.

The Clock is one kind of experience for people who go to a lot of films and another kind entirely, I would imagine, for people who do not. Like all intelligently allusive artworks, this one succeeds whether or not you recognize the sources. But I can’t help feeling that it is a richer, deeper experience for those who, say, know that all the Michael J. Fox snippets come from that very clever time-travel vehicle, Back to the Future, or who treasure the Gene Hackman moments as discreet allusions to the sequencing games of The Conversation. And then there are the pleasures of simply recognizing Humphrey Bogart, Johnny Depp, and Gary Cooper in all their various reappearances. Such recognitions allow us to witness the ways in which, over the course of their careers, those actors aged and changed (or, to give the contrary example of Angelina Jolie, the way in which she doesn’t age, doesn’t change by even one iota). If The Clock is about mortality, as it so clearly is, then one of the kinds of mortality that preoccupies it is the strange “life” of movie stars. On the one hand, they grow older and eventually die just like the rest of us. On the other hand, they remain preserved forever in that moment of celluloid (or whatever is used instead of celluloid these days), captured at one age for all time, destined to repeat themselves forever. Part of the lure of The Clock is that it enacts this plot with tremendous poignance over and over. This is not just an intellectual construct, not an abstraction about the passage of time: we see the beautiful young Marlon Brando, the beautiful young Gloria Grahame, and we know in an instant what it means to age and die.

But the attractions of The Clock do not begin and end there. It refers to life, but it is clearly not life, and the contrast between its purposiveness and our quotidian carelessness—our routine obliviousness to the minute-by-minute, second-by-second passage of time—is part of its deep allure. In one sequence of the film, derived from a movie I’ve never seen, two guys dressed in cheap suits and hats (it must be the late 1940s or early 1950s) sit in a car parked on a suburban street, timing the behavior of the residents. A woman comes out in a bathrobe to pick up her bottle of milk and her newspaper, so “it must be 6:35,” growls the crustier of the two watchdogs. About an hour and a half later, we are back with these two as they watch a man leave for work at precisely his accustomed hour. “Their ordinary lives, our split-second timing,” comments the guy in the driver’s seat; “that’s what makes it work.” He might have been describing the elegant strategies of Christian Marclay himself.



Wendy Lesser is the founding editor of The Threepenny Review. Her latest book is Music for Silenced Voices: Shostakovich and His Fifteen Quartets.
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