The Addictive Tick of The Clock

Christian Marclay’s The Clock (2010) is a 24-hour long video installation composed of instances in film and television where clocks or watches are either visible in shot or just out of shot, or where someone is asking/telling the time. These have been painstakingly edited together to chronicle the passing of real time and as a result it can be considered an actual timepiece.

At no point during the piece (The Clock is not a film, merely a collage of film segments) should the viewer need to refer to their watch or phone to check what time it is (for it is on the screen playing out straight ahead) though the compulsion to frequently monitor that what we’re watching is perfectly synchronised with real time plays like a magic trick, demanding continuous reality checks.

In one particularly memorable scene around 1:00pm (I forget the exact time), a young child draws a likeness of a watch-face in pen on the back of his hand. This scene is just as good as any in The Clock for telling the time at that exact moment, and so it is woven into the fabric of the entire project.

Scenes range in length from mere seconds to a few minutes, cutting continually just when a narrative is being established. This technique can initially be jarring and draws attention to the fact that the chosen footage has only been included due to its appropriateness for the sole purpose of furthering the project unto its eventual completion.

Individual narratives share virtually nothing in common with one another, except for the fact that they arrive at almost the exact same time of day. Some longer scenes are even broken up into parts, interspersed with others and presumably edited so that the accompanying scene’s length is removed from the overall run time, thereby developing a strange, quasi-narrative of their own. The overall result is both curiously thrilling and predictably monotonous.

Since debuting in London at White Cube’s Masons Yard space eight years ago, The Clock has won the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale in 2011, shown in more than two dozen cities around the world, and been acclaimed so many times that it almost seems fitting to reassess the meaning of the word ‘masterpiece’ for use in critiquing contemporary art. Growing queues of inquisitive viewers form whenever The Clock is presented for public consumption, all eager to witness first hand for themselves once word-of-mouth spreads and the novelty to experience the seemingly mundane becomes a tangible reality.

Most of us in the Western world are surrounded by television screens from a young age and we quickly learn that what we see on screen is often a fictional narrative born of someone else’s depiction of reality. The Clock explodes these preexisting beliefs not just once or twice, but continually, thousands and thousands of times over, across the course of the piece’s 1,440 minute run.

I believe part of people’s fascination with The Clock comes before the initial viewing in the form of perceived challenges. Marclay almost seems to be daring the viewer to spend as long as they can with the piece before leaving. The notion that surely it’s not possible to find instances in film that account for every single moment of a given day might be another challenge.

There’s also the thrill that comes from being pleasantly surprised when we see a snippet of one of our favourite films and the possibility of seeing more; or how a seemingly uneventful scene that might’ve existed for passing time in its original format is recontextualised by Marclay for the sole purpose of filling time in his; or the idea that hanging around in the gallery a little bit longer might throw up some sort of fitting conclusion and make our commitment worthwhile.

The result is a marvel of editing, stitched together in a way that almost simultaneously curates time and is curated itself by time: Marclay may be the artist cum director, but the strict flow of a single 24 hour day has completed the selection process for him. The urge to predict what kinds of scenes may play out is perhaps inevitable, yet due to the random selection of scenes from across film history, one can never know what will happen next, or where in the world it might take place. This randomness is key to the way the film has mesmerized audiences and become addictive to many.

The Clock forces the viewer to consider time in a way that we often forget. Its mundane passing ensures that we take for granted the tick-tick-tick of actual hands across a clock face, instead organising our lives around events that we need or want to experience, filling the gaps with pleasure-seeking activities to make the mundane a little more bearable. Marclay’s selection of clips are therefore universally relatable and offer an insight into the often ignored, unglamorous elements of our lives that make us human.

Common themes occur throughout: most people across these thousands of scenes seem to be bored, anxious, impatient or in a hurry, trying to escape time or trying to make up for it. Time always seems to be in short supply, and people always seem to be trying to acquire more of it as it slips through their fingers. As the minutes-hand approaches the hour, things have a habit of speeding up, people miss important deadlines and dramatic music swells to indicate that all’s not well for our leading character, only to result in a short burst of on-the-hour snippets before settling back down into more mundane instances. Music is sometimes carried from one scene to the next, a conscious decision on Marclay’s part to let an idea or feeling linger for just a little while longer than the unrelenting tick of time passing will allow.

Another theory I have as to why viewings of The Clock have resulted in such long queues outside the spaces it’s been shown in has more to do with how people are viewing it. Many audience members — myself included — are viewing The Clock as though it were a film. Perhaps crucially, how can it be viewed as anything but? This goes some way to explaining why many people spend hours comfortably nestled in the arm of one of the viewing room’s sofas. It offers the viewer a means of escapism much like most televisual entertainment does. Unlike most duration-based video art installations that are often seen as impenetrable without experiencing the entire piece, The Clock fragments traditional film narratives by presenting snapshots of people’s lives, doing so in a way that is familiar and expeditious to the common cinema-goer.

Helaine Blumenfeld once referred to art as a ‘commitment to risk’ and ‘a reflection of life.’ It’s a statement that feels particularly apt as to why The Clock has entranced audiences for years and will likely continue to do so, for it draws upon the very foundations of what make us human.

Time is a universal constant and we apply it to our lives constantly to give us context — we worry about ageing, about finding a life partner who will make us happy, about declining physical health or ambitions to travel the world or find harmony within ourselves. We take photos to capture a moment in time that cannot be revisited. We give ourselves five-year career goals or new year’s resolutions to get fit. We want to matter and leave our mark upon this world, because there is only so much time we are granted before the Grim Reaper comes calling.

The Clock ultimately feels like a celebration of life that carries a message of making the most of it whilst we can. Some might think there are better ways of spending that precious time than sat in a dark gallery watching clips of old films meticulously edited to real time. On the other hand, there might not be a better way of spending that time than with time itself. One thing remains certain: you’re not going to have enough time to watch it all in one sitting.

The Clock currently runs at London’s Tate Modern until January 20th 2019. Entry is free.