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"What's the time?"

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Melbourne Cinémathèque's Eloise Ross explores the cinematic influences in Christian Marclay's The Clock and how it makes us consider time.

Christian Marclay’s The Clock has toured galleries around the world since 2010 and has undoubtedly altered the perception of many audience members when it comes to looking out for or listening to clocks, and to noticing time passing. It’s an audiovisual timepiece that shows or tells the time at almost each minute of a 24-hour period with clips remixed from film and TV history. Compiled using thousands of segments, The Clock builds on an intense cinephilic knowledge to layer the past and present in one ongoing contemporary installation. The Clock can tell the time for you, but it’s also an experimentation with cinematic temporality.

Whether it’s labelled art or cinema, The Clock is clearly both. Like Douglas Gordon’s famous installation work 24 Hour Psycho (1993), which reduces the frame rate of Hitchcock’s horror film to expand its running time, Marclay’s work experiments with the power of time in cinema. However, Marclay repurposes cinematic moments in very different ways, exploring rhythms of sound and image on screen, while inviting viewers to recognise films and actors that appear on screen. In this regard, The Clock is perhaps most interesting in its clear declaration of influence from thousands of films that came before it.

A picture of a man holding a watch in a desert background from No Country for Old Men in Christian Marclay's the clock

Christian Marclay, “The Clock” (2010), single-channel video installation, duration 24 hours © the artist. Courtesy White Cube

As many actors self-reflexively remind us, films are always about time – how long they go for, how much fictional time is covered, whether we’re aware of time (or its passing) during a moment. In Paris Blues (Martin Ritt, 1961), Paul Newman asks Joanne Woodward “What time is it?”, and in On Dangerous Ground (Nicholas Ray, 1950), Ida Lupino asks Robert Ryan the same question. Clocks can bring a great weight to a film space, and they can make an audience aware of themselves. The materiality of a ticking clock (or a flickering digital watch interface) can lull us into a moment, stimulate our desire to be drawn deeper into the world of the screen. As an overarching umbrella to its micronarratives, The Clock is about time, and it invites us all to consider how we live through it.      

The Clock exists in a tradition of video remixes and art pieces from the likes of Soda_Jerk, German filmmaker Matthias Müller and Hungarian filmmaker György Pálfi that would be described as “sampling” by art critic Nicolas Bourriaud. In his book Postproduction, Bourriaud talks of exhibitions that enclose within themselves the fabric and feeling of another, so that art exists “in an infinite chain of contributions”. The Clock is the same, existing both in unity with other works and reusing them in ways that expand their original place in the world.

Composing an art piece (or perhaps it’s a film), Marclay conjures his own stories and themes, constructing an anti-classical narrative experience. He gives moments from the past new meaning, embedding them in a new framework of reception. While there’s no descriptive intertitles, no poetic voiceover or narration of the moments on screen, Marclay is clear in his authorial construction here, both serious and in play. Certain films are used – for instance, Vincente Minnelli’s The Clock (1945) – but their most obvious references to time may not be featured. Scenes from films play out in almost real time, their cinematically condensed moments stretched in a new setting, without the ease of elliptical editing. A scene from a film might recur and, sitting there mesmerised, you realise that it’s an hour or two later – like Lawrence Tierney going to the movies in Dillinger (1945), Ray Milland trying to murder his wife in Dial M For Murder (1954), Joan Bennett and Edward G. Robinson deceiving each other in Scarlet Street (1945). The protagonist in Hitchcock’s ‘Four O’Clock’ (1957), an episode of his TV series Suspense, is tied-up for almost an hour, but in The Clock he never escapes, destined to wait forever. In this way, Marclay plays with history and explores how stories are told on screen. It’s an expansion of his previous work, the seven-minute Telephones (1995), where characters dial phones, others have brief conversations, and telephones are hung up. It’s short and concise, demonstrating the abruptness of the telephone call, and how engaging such a simple task can be when depicted through the frame of a screen.

A digital clock showing 4.05am in Christian Marclay's the clock

Christian Marclay, “The Clock” (2010), single-channel video installation, duration 24 hours © the artist. Courtesy White Cube.

Beyond this, one of the most interesting things about The Clock is its sensory dimension, including its soundscape, which contributes to its rhythm and materiality as a piece of art. With the assistance of sound designer Quentin Chiappetta, Marclay often layers sounds, carrying one film’s soundtrack to the next with an aural cut, or completely replacing one soundtrack with another. Sounds from different films are mixed together to traverse and join eras, like the sound of one clock overlapping with the sound of another decades later. Pop music might accompany a clip from the 1930s, or a voice from one film might be heard on a radio in a completely different film. With sound, The Clock brings the past into synchronicity with the present, and films like Vampyr (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1932), Séance on a Wet Afternoon (Bryan Forbes, 1964) and Desperately Seeking Susan (Susan Seidelman, 1985), all coexist.

There’s a lot to love in The Clock, and probably quite a bit that will pique your interest, or mesmerise you and leave you wanting more. It’s pretty much a guarantee, though, that spending time with this clock will encourage you to change the way you think about time in the movies. As an experiment with the layered forms of art and cinema, The Clock dislodges classical narrative structure and expands cinematic temporality. There is a consistent tension in Marclay’s work between filmic duration and real-world experience, and The Clock balances both of these both modes. As midnight approaches on screen, a character asks why so many exciting things happen at midnight. “Because movies are technically accurate,” is the response. Whether that’s true or not is part of the fun here, but it certainly makemakes use reconsider our relationship with cinema, and cinema’s relationship with time.

The Clock screens free until 10 March with 24-hour sessions start Thursday 10am and run through the night, finishing up Friday 5pm