The Clock is an art installation by video artist Christian Marclay (born 1955). It is in effect a clock, but it is made of a 24-hour montage of thousands of time-related scenes from movies and some TV shows, meticulously edited to be shown in “real time”: each scene contains an indication of time (for instance, a timepiece, or a piece of dialogue) that is synchronized to show the actual time. The Clock debuted at London’s White Cube gallery in 2010.
Strangely enough, as a film, “The Clock” is really suspenseful. That’s because Marclay, who’s a sound artist, has arranged for the audio of various clips to bleed into the following clip, as Daniel Zalewski explains in his profile of Marclay, so that as the second hands tick toward noon, amped-up music from “Run Lola Run” “bleeds” from clip to clip, tricking the viewer (who knows that this is not a narrative film) into wondering “What on earth is going to happen at 12?” It won’t be a surprise to tell you that the bell tolls, the clocks strike noon, the large and small hands sync into a single line. And yet it feels like a momentous moment. Maybe this small pleasure is the piece’s truest one: the way “The Clock” dramatizes time all over again. And over again. “The Clock” is both a comment on and a reminder of how much of our lives we spend watching, not only our TVs and computers but our watches. Even on screen, everyone’s always living in time, checking out what’s going on, trying to find out when, exactly, they are.
Though “The Clock” is a masterpiece, in its way, it’s not always serious: this is a crowd-pleaser, just like Big Ben. Marclay’s not above easy jokes. In one clip, a pink watering can gets kicked, blooming into a fiery explosion in the next. Near the hour, you hear the sound of a countdown—the sound “of actual time approaching.” You wonder what it could be. Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper ride onto screen on motorcycles and pause. Fonda looks at his watch, takes it off, and tosses it to the ground before riding away. So much for actual time.Ultimately, “The Clock” is a signature artwork of our archival age, a testament to the pleasures of mechanization (and now digitization). It’s an experience, I suspect, that would be nearly entirely illegible to an eighteenth-century time traveller who, curious what modern-day New Yorkers were all wound up about, wandered into line. “The Clock,” with its obsessive compiling, its miniature riffs, its capacious comic and dramatic turns, speaks to the completist lurking in all of present-day us. If montage is usually as cheaply sweet as Asti Spumante, “The Clock” is Champagne: it’s what the form was invented for, it turns out. Drink it in deeply, and the days just might go on forever.
None of what I saw in “The Clock” felt tragic, despite the work’s obsessive preoccupation with the materiality of time, and its endless ticking away toward an end. While death suffuses the piece, its primary effect is to make the viewer feel an ongoing nostalgia for the present. It’s a funny film: a collage that’s also a kind of Duchampian ready-made. It’s both its parts and the sum of it. Like a Swiss watch whose insides are exposed, it lets us stare, transfixed, at its moving parts, which can’t be stopped.