I did a lot of thinking about Christian Marclay’s The Clock – at Paula Cooper, through Saturday – before I got the chance to actually see it; I was pretty much sold when I heard the concept. There's a lot you can say about the idea of reinvigorating the innate deadness of the image with a restaging in real time, and I liked that. Now that I’ve seen it, though, I’m not so convinced.
If I’m not charitable, The Clock comes off as an homage to cinema. The visual cuts have cinematic timing, and the audio tracks bleed from scene to scene as they would in the original films. The inclusion of so many canonical films just adds to this; certainly there’s more Back to the Future than Date Movie in the piece. As the lines outside the gallery attest, it’s a formula that makes for great entertainment, and while I don’t have a problem with great art also being a crowd-pleaser – ultimately, this should be an objective – Marclay makes sacrifices for entertainment value that detract from the work. In short, he breaks his own rules
For The Clock to work, I need to believe there’s a reliable system at work. I need to believe that it runs for twenty-four hours – this I have on good authority – and that at every point it contains a scene connected to the present time by a watch, clock, or helpful voice. Marclay, though, has no reservations about undermining his own system. When it’s convenient – and it often is – shots are included that have little or nothing to do with the time. At one point, around 10:30, there’s a shot of a woman waking up without a watch, clock, or sundial in sight; she’s seemingly included purely to add humor to an interspliced scene from Secret Window, itself at least timestamped, in which Johnny Depp’s character talks to his dog. Simultaneously, two things occurred: I laughed, and I lost confidence in the film. A few minutes later there’s a succession of scenes on the beach – we could only recognize The 400 Blows – wherein, like most people at the beach, the characters have left their watches at home. Is it conceivable that these events were set between 10:35 and 10:40? Sure – but possibility is hardly faith, and I wasn't convinced Marclay was doing anything other than grouping by subject. The length of shots, too, is inconsistent. Marclay lets some scenes play out in their entirety when a clock is present only once; other times, the clock is all we see. The fuller scenes add to the teasing sense of narrative, but take the viewer’s attention away from the artwork and focus it on the original film.
This might seem like nitpicking, but rules are important. They've been important since Duchamp's 3 Standard Stoppages, wherein he dropped three meter-length pieces of string onto a piece of canvas and duly recorded the resting shapes of the strings in carved wooden slats: had he fudged the curves a bit to provide a more appealing shape, they wouldn't be interesting. They've been important since capital-C Conceptualists like Douglas Huebler and the relentlessly alive On Kawara. Just like scientific or religious systems, art systems allow one to contextualize and make sense of otherwise random phenomena, elevating ourselves in the process. When our confidence in these systems fails, we’re thrown right back to that unelevated morass of happenstance. Marclay walks a fine line between the entertaining and the actively self-defeating.