Is Christian Marclay’s “The Clock” Too Easy?

by Will Brand on February 16, 2011 · 34 comments Opinion

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.

  • Anonymous

    But the rules that determine the artwork are defined by the artwork itself—for Kawara, for Duchamp, for every artist working within a rules-based concept. Therefore, if Marclay had restricted himself only to shots including an image of the clock, those would be the rules. But he didn’t. Nor did he mean to—the press release says that he “samples thousands of film excerpts indicating the passage of time.” The passage of time happens with or without clocks and I think if Marclay had only used very obvious clips the overall work would be very flat. We all sense time passing (or not) regardless of whether we are wearing a watch or looking at a clock. The additional clips add emotional weight and depth and move the work away from (or enhance what’s already there, given his use of canonical films) something that is stiff and cold like Kawara’s I Woke Up (which I also like as an artwork) and into something more lyrical.

    • Will Brand

      You’re right that Marclay’s rules are Marclay’s. I’m not questioning whether he messed up making his own piece, I’m questioning whether he messed up making good art (and, to be clear, I like “The Clock”).

      Frankly, I don’t see how “emotional weight and depth” do anything for the piece. Emotion in video is absurd or meaningless unless it’s attached to some sort of narrative, and I don’t see a narrative here. If there is a narrative, and it’s coming from the piece, it’s either a ~universal human narrative~, which is nauseating, or it’s one that’s going to fail given viewers don’t feel any compunction to stay for a particular period of time. If there is a narrative, and it’s coming from the component films, it’s verging on being an homage to cinema. If there isn’t a narrative, and this is good-absurd rather than bad-absurd, it’s not very good at being good-absurd. I think reading the work as a slightly messed-up, but ambitious and clever, cold/mechanical/conceptual project is the most charitable reading.

      • Anonymous

        Full disclosure: I made my first comment before seeing The Clock, but having read and heard a lot about it. Yesterday I spent 5 1/2 hours watching, with a hangover to boot.

        I’m not sure I really enjoyed the work in the same way I enjoy my favorite artworks but it was compelling and impossible to pull myself away—it was only when the gallery closed at 6 that I stopped watching. I did recognize many of the issues you noted, but I don’t know if they would have bothered me as much if I wasn’t already thinking about them. Above all, what impressed me the least were Marclay’s editing and directing abilities. Granted, he was fairly restricted in his material, but I thought that more often than not he did a poor job of pacing the cuts and maintaining short spurts of narrative. He frequently would put two high-drama scenes together and then cut directly to a low-drama one, killing the momentum. Occasionally he intercut several scenes and did it very cleverly, often with how the characters were supposedly related to each other physically. When it was done well it was really excellent—I remember from 5:30 until about 6 was particularly good—but there were also long stretches that felt really clumsy. And yet nonetheless I just kept watching.

        I think ultimately the reason the work resonates with so many people and especially with the public at large is precisely because it has emotional weight and depth, and I think in The Clock it’s tied directly to nostalgia. While I was watching, the large majority of laughter occurred when people recognized and had an attachment to the original film—Animal House, The Sound of Music, Annie Hall. And the sequences that I remember most are the ones where Marclay let a clip play out and the clip on its own was already a great scene—the home run in The Natural, for instance. I think ultimately Marclay added very little to the original source material, and occasionally wasted it. Of course, if he just cut together great scenes from film history it would be a totally different work, but I think he erred too much on the side of rigor in his treatment of the idea. In a strange way he was both too strict and too liberal in his application of the rules.

        I don’t see how a universal human narrative is nauseating—the argument could be made that all art in some way deals with the universal human narrative, whatever that means. Since his source material is film, which I think moreso than all other art forms does engage a universal human narrative, the end result is necessarily tied to that. I think the narrative is Time, but human time, rather than scientific time. And I think Time can only be explored through often-cliche ideas—saying goodbye to a lover at a train station (used more often than any other type of clip in what I saw of The Clock, which is also interesting, since time was only standardized because of national train systems), waiting for a friend or bus, getting out of school or work, etc. If Marclay had strictly found shots of clocks and edited those together, it would be incredibly boring and no-one would care, because it would be void of any emotion. This seemed to be the reason he occasionally added shots that didn’t have direct connections to a measure of time. Ultimately I do think he could have done without them and the work would have been much stronger.

        • HiredGoons

          I completely agree with you on your point about nostalgia.

  • http://hereisafantasylikenowhereelse.wordpress.com Corinna Kirsch

    I’m still confounded by how popular “The Clock” is with a non-art world audience with lines spilling out the door at all areas of the day and night. I do think that the logic set up by Marclay is thus: “the clock” is one way to attest to the passage of time and in cinema it creates fairly cliched situations. Will, we agree on this, that at approximately 10:00 AM, most characters are drowsily rising from bed or about to miss a train. Whether or not this is true for most viewers’ experiences at that morning hour, positioned in Paula Cooper on comfortable couches (I am going to take a leap and say that they are probably IKEA brand), is up to them to decide. The “clock” is the main structure of the film, but through the content of introducing a mixtape of cinematic history, by linking Charles Bronson with Johnny Depp films, other motifs common to the medium’s content become relevant to Marclay’s work. Would “The Clock” have worked without the ruptures of scenes without clocks? Yes, but I don’t think that history is as clean and logical to allow for such a formulaic logic.

    Note: I am interested in the idea of timepieces such as clocks as anachronistic. Fewer and fewer people wear watches because you can keep time and set alarms on phones, and watches are now worn primarily as accessories. Like Marclay’s use of cassette mixtapes and vinyl records, the timepiece seems like an apt addition to his repertoire of outdated stuff.

    • Will Brand

      I don’t think the commonalities between the clips are all that meaningful when we haven’t been given any information about their selection process. If I started with the top 100 films on IMDb, or all the films from the past year, and discovered upon plotting them out that characters were always waking up at 10am – I think I would – that’s interesting. It’s not smart, but it’s interesting. I don’t see where Marclay’s done that, though. He’s cherry-picked scenes without attempting to start with a representative or even stated set of films, so he could frankly create any cliche he likes. If I’ve got the entire history of film to work with, I can make it look like all anybody ever does from 10 to 11am is eat oatmeal, and 11 to 12 is when you ride horses, and 12 to 1 is anal hour. So long as you’re discussing it, that might even make an interesting comment on history as a fucked-up amalgam of individual historians’ priorities.

      • Adrian

        I think I would have liked The Clock more (and I liked it quite a bit already) if it did focus more on the mundane minute by minute activities of a day. A whole hour of everyone from Humphrey Bogart to Colin Firth eating oatmeal would have been amazing. One thing that was obvious from watching just three of Marclay’s 24 hours (10:15am to 1:15pm) is that 50% of shots in cinema involving clocks and watches seem to revolve around bank hold-ups. Bank hold-ups are more fun to watch than people eating oatmeal, but they don’t really describe a day in the way I wanted The Clock to do, but then I’m sure I’m in the minority there.

  • Sven

    There were no surprises in what i saw of this piece. To those who liked it, in what way did you benefit from it?

  • http://twitter.com/starwarsmodern Star Wars Modern

    Sven – Before Clock: chop wood carry water. After Clock: chop wood carry water.

    • Corinna Kirsch

      No way! Life is more stressful in the Clock age. Before Clock: chop wood carry water. After Clock: chop wood look at the time carry water look at the time (because you might be late).

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  • Edward M.

    The fact that Marclay was able to create art enjoyable by masses is a great accomplishment. It is fair for me to say that if you would have created The Clock, you would have made it differently, with different “rules.” Thus I also accept your nippicking criticism of Marclay’s decisions and your charitable appreciation of his work as fair.

    • Will Brand

      I just don’t see the point in criticizing something without being able to articulate what you’d like better. It’s the vast majority of criticism, sure, but it’s a completely untenable position in real life, whether you’re having a suit tailored or a meal prepared or a house built; you can’t keep asking for do-overs without giving some specifics. I feel like a lot of people would have liked this post better if it didn’t offer a detailed, feasible alternative work that I’d prefer. Sorry about that; by the way, has anyone figured out why criticism’s dead yet?

  • Lips

    Err…if every scene had focused on a timepiece it’d not only be boring, but wouldn’t make the mini-narrative rhythms nearly as engaging as they are. You’re also not one to speak of ‘rules’ when no rules were ever stated. I smell pretentious art student contrarianism….snore. Can’t we all just be fun and accept that The Clock is the best artwork to come along in years – if not just the most joyous – and that picking on it is like picking on the Sistine Chapel. Everyone’s got an opinion – but some opinions are pretty lame…like this ‘review.’

    • Will Brand

      I. I have movies and sex and a rubber ducky for joyous engaging fun; I want art to make me think. Maybe that’s pretentious, but with few exceptions it’s pretension and not fun that’s brought art to the place it is – the place you like – today.

      II. The idea of ‘rules’ doesn’t have to be stated; it’s inherent in any piece this long, and I defy you to name me one video artwork longer than 12 hours which does not operate mechanically or according to some system. This is the point of duration; we can’t stay and watch the video forever, but we can reasonably approximate what’s happening in the parts we don’t see, and to approximate it helps to have something to go on.

      III. At what point does one go from pretentious contrarian art student to infallible Creator-god Artist, exactly? Is it when you finish classes, or when you get your final grades back, or when you graduate, or what?

    • Anonymous

      Lips: Further comments will not be approved unless a verifiable email is provided. Also, name calling is not acceptable on this blog. If you’re going to make an argument against the one in the post, you’d better cite a specific example and refrain from indulging in such cliche. In other words, no more Sistine Chapel comparisons.

  • ASDF

    I hate Marclay. His art is the embodiment of those ideas that sound great in your head, but that you edit out when you begin flushing them out. All smarmy tricks. It asks little of the audience. It asks little of the artist. It’s GREAT for journalists, and those looking for sound bites, etc…

  • Antidote

    Marclay’s work, to me, has seemed less about chance than constructing some sort of narrative or experience from the choice, cuts, montages, juxtaposition of images. I’ve never grouped him in with the Cage-esque indeterminants, the collages: ‘arms and legs'; the videos: ‘telephones'; ‘video quartet’ and the 4 screen rapid-fire gunslinger immersion, the name of which I forget for the moment- are not experiments in simply registering something and letting that something speak how it likes, but in intervening in this registering with calculated determination. That’s the appeal to the work- that the connections Marclay makes are intelligent, well-timed and sometimes comic.

    • Will Brand

      I like this comment a lot. I can’t figure out if that means I’m wrong.

  • Anonymous

    Just a reminder to people: LEAVE A VERIFIABLE EMAIL. Also, name calling is not acceptable on this blog.

  • Jswift

    A truly misguided review — contrarianism at its most dubious. I saw nearly 8 hours over four seatings and you talk of rules. Critics who don’t make art will always fall short and reach for academic ‘rules’. Shameful reductionist drivel. And to all the know-it-all pretenders, who might have done better. Suffer. Fools. Gladly. And

  • otto mannix

    Where was it stated that Marclay had a set of ‘rules’? I’m a bit uncomfortable with ‘rules’ in art.

  • Otto Mannix

    “…I want art to make me think.” Fair enough, but i have to disagree. I don’t believe that artists necessarily have any particular responsibility. In fact, there is too much art these days marinated in ‘meaning’ and dripping with ‘message’, and in many cases, when that baggage is stripped away, you’re standing there looking at a complete piece of crap. Case in point, Dan Colen’s recent show at Gagosian. Check out the titles of his bubble gum pieces. Long strung-together phrases that attempt to superimpose meaning onto a piece of garbage that he hired someone to make for him. He may have borrowed that stunt from Damien Hirst, another empty hero. Give me a meaningless Jackson Pollock any day.

    In “The Clock” I appreciated the quiet tone (but i saw the hours between 3:30 and 5:30 AM), the absence of irony or sarcasm, and the scale of the work. Knowing that it runs for 24 hours somehow makes any particular part feel like more than it is. But your review is valid. In fact it’s refreshing to see an alternative to the gushing praise. (A good friend of mine hated what he calls “The Crock”!!!)

  • Maderanariz

    Marclay is uninteresting except that he manipulates a simple public.

  • Will Brand

    It’s a shame you missed the Playlist show! http://www.artfagcity.com/2010/12/09/playlist-opens-tonight-at-postmasters/

    I’ll forward your concerns to any know-it-all pretenders I run into, though. I understand that you liked the piece; that’s great. So did I. If I can try your patience to point out one more weakness in it, though, I think it’s a shame it didn’t inspire in you any ability to state why, how, or to what extent it affected you. You’ve got eight hours logged in front of the piece, but a lifetime in which to talk, think, and argue about it; if you can’t do the latter effectively and politely, I’m not sure how much benefit it’s been to you.

  • evanr

    Wow i feel like Im back in college art history…how about just accepting the film for what it is? Who are you to make changes to make it ‘better’? I only saw a couple of hours but for anyone who likes the movies and the history of film has to find the experience very enjoyable. The amount of editing, compiling, sifting etc to create this 24 hr spectacle has to be appreciated in of itself. It is obviously a labor of love that appropriates so many movie memories and packages it with pace for the A.D.D. times we live in to create something completely new and something that elicits different reactions for each and every viewer based on their particular past related to film. And I think it does make the viewer think, if that is your definition of what art should ‘do’, with different levels of irony and multiple definitions of what time is..is it really a man made construct? I kept thinking about my own mortal ticking heart clock. Like the continuous loop of this film time goes on with or without a functioning pocket watch, clock radio or cellphone and with or without you. I actually lost track of time while in there. Don’t hate on Christian I think he created something for all of us.

  • Carlp

    no one seems to talk about the fact he did not get permisson to use the films.. it doesn’t take much to know that showing, charging or selling a film that includes pirated footage is against the law and can not be shown. How are these institutions and Marclay getting away with it?

    • Frankz

      You should email Warner Bros. and let them know.
      The value of appropriation in art has been a subject of debate as long as there has been a debate about art, I would say. Art, as critical, cultural commentary, should be immune from copyright law. If we, as artists, were to abide by all of the copyright permissions, all of the time, we would be seriously limiting our pallet.

      These are words from a Canadian web site which I have no affiliation with:

      The value of these works of art does not negatively affect the source material in any financial way. If anything, new works encourage and stimulate new use, new access, new interest, new connections. And contemporary culture should not be immune from critical commentary.
      (http://www.appropriationart.ca/the-issues/implications)

      • Carlpistoletto

        fine, but art covers virtually everything. Are movies art? music?? books? should it be possible to use any music or footage you in a major motion picture?
        If you are going to say Art is immune form copyright everyone in the world can argue that what they are doing is art. Art also is a business. Its not pure.. look at the art fairs? its a big business and within it there is commercial and non commercial ‘Art’ and ‘The Clock’ is no doubt a commercial big business piece or so called ‘art’.

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  • http://www.jonathanbrilliant.com brilliant

    It may be way off from what you are saying, but I agree the rules were a big part of what made the clock tick. I was able to catch a couple different hours, at different points in the day. I was only able to do 1-1.5 hours at a time, but each segment I caught felt very similar. His pacing towards the top and bottom of the hours was the same, and yes the audio bleed is what makes it way more watchable than other sampled video work of his. But what sticks with me a few weeks later is the level of craft in the entire piece. For me this is the work of an older, patient, mature artist. The level of organization and care and attention to crafting the piece makes it work as a big spectacle, and as a well made piece of art. It was hard to not see the piece as progressing and perfecting systems in previous Marclay video collage pieces, but since their his systems i don’t mind if he makes variations in them. On a side note I found the staff at Paula Cooper to be so incredibly friendly and patient, and even remembered me on repeat returns, that it in some way added to my overall positive feelings about the clock. I guess I am saying it was hard not to like it, but I agree with your attempts to be critical with the piece, so thanks.

  • http://jarrettmoran.com Jarrett Moran

    This is coming late, as I just stumbled on this post. I’d like to point out that it seems Duchamp DID completely fudge the 3 standard stoppages (http://www.toutfait.com/issues/issue_1/News/stoppages.html). I only bring this up because what I often find most interesting about “captial-C Conceptual work” is its aesthetic undercurrents, the ways in which it is consciously or unconsciously fudged.

  • David G. Stork

    I just returned to the USA from the Venice Biennale, where I saw three hours of “The Clock” (11:15am to 2:15pm), and five days later The Israeli Museum in Jerusalem, where I saw four more (1:00pm to 5:00pm).  I was not aware of the existence of the installation piece beforehand, and these dual experiences gave me a perspective and enriched my understanding beyond a single showing, as I’ll explain below.  I too found “The clock” remarkably compelling, at times mesmerizing,
    even though it simply could not have traditional plot and narrative. 

    First, however, I’d like to respond to Will Brand’s criticism of Marclay’s apparent failure to adhere strictly to the constraint of showing scenes linked with clocks or time.  Alas, I cannot comment explicitly on the beach scene he adduces as evidence (since I didn’t see it), but I will mention that sometimes the citations of time are indirect, fleeting and elusive.  For instance, in the graveyard scene in “Hamlet,” where no clocks are shown, we hear the tolling of a distant clock bell.  In several scenes I noticed only the most elusive—almost subliminal—appearance of a watch.  In other scenes it is reference, not illustration, such as the TIME MOVERS moving truck driving down the street.  Marclay gained my trust in this matter after about 30 minutes, and I would be reluctant to make Brand’s criticism without repeated viewings of the possibly “errant” scenes.  In fact, I picked up several references in my second viewing of roughly an hour of film.

    My second viewing, five days after my first, reminded me of the cyclical nature of time (of course) but because my latter viewing was in a different time zone (+2 hours), it brought to mind the SPATIAL nature of time.  I envisioned the world globe and theaters, museums and galleries displaying “The clock,” and the WAVE of the film’s scenes progressing around the globe:  the “High noon” scene always underneath the sun in the physical world, for instance, one o’clock 1/24th of the way east around the globe, and so on.

    My second viewing also (somehow) brought to mind the fact that what we see in the film clips is the time AS REPRESENTED in the movie, not the time of he reality when the film scene was shot.  Thus a scene showing 2:36pm, say, might have been shot at 3:16pm, or in a film set at 10:52pm.  As such, the link between the “real” time of the display of “The clock” is only statistically linked to the “reality” of that on the set of the original clip.  The link was funneled through the original film directors’ choice of representing time and his or her choice of the particular “take” that best served the original film.  Another “break” from what we might call “strict isochronism” is the successive scenes from a source film (the man tied in a room with the alarm clock and dynamite) displayed synchronized to our “real” time in the theater.  In the source film these scenes were likely not paced to “real” time.  (Of course, some video, such as the American television show “24” or film “Time code,” where four simultaneous narratives are represented in the quadrants of the display screen, are so synchronized.)

    I can’t wait to see the full 24 hours of this remarkable video installation.

    –David G. Stork

  • Guest

    Marclay is genious, you NOT! simple jelousy!

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