The Power Plant

A Daze in the Life

SEP 30 2013
by Ben Portis

Since the pins holding together the bracelet to my grandfather’s vintage Omega crumbled, I have fallen out of the habit of reliably carrying a dedicated timepiece on my person. Thus it came to my notice that clocks are no longer ubiquitous in public places. Sometimes I surreptitiously check the time from parking meters. Other times I handily refer to my BlackBerry.

Christian Marclay’s art frequently takes up banal everyday objects at the cusp of obsolescence or extinction. He is well known for his seminal work with phonographs and vinyl records, both as musician and artist; his earliest such activities roughly coincided with what seemed to be the demise of vinyl to make way for compact discs.

In 1995, Marclay made a seven-and-one-half-minute video called Telephones. It was not his first. With previous tapes—Fast Music (1981), Record Players (1984) and Ghost (I Don’t Live Today) (1985)—he enacted or documented performances, a longstanding trope in the short history of video art. Just before discussing its subject matter, one of the most remarkable properties of Telephones is that it was made without the use of a camera. Telephones collaged clips from various movies dating from the 1930s to present, copied from commercially available VHS cassettes or taped off the television. In addition to bypassing a fundamental tool of the video artist, Marclay also tapped the most common means of circulation of his source materials, rental and broadcast, exploiting what the proprietary entertainment industries considered its exposure to piracy. Or what Marclay considered the free and rightful artistic use of materials aggressively and pervasively introduced into the public cultural sphere. The binding narrative of Telephones, as its title suggests, is an ambiguous, absurd multi-party conversation (or is it a monologue?) constructed from the sturdy yet awkward dramatic device of the one-sided cinematic telephone call. While spanning over sixty years of cinema, some one hundred characters, black-and-white and colour film, rotary dials and touch pads, in 1995, the gestures and attitudes remained not only remarkably consistent and but utterly familiar. Seen today, Telephones is a reliquary of that waning talisman now known as a “land line.”

Marclay subsequently made other camera-less video collages from movie material—Up and Out (1998), Video Quartet (2002), Crossfire (2007)—each more technically assured, ambitious and composed (to be understood in both the sculptural and musical sense). The exemplary composer for Marclay is John Cage. Up and Out is a breathtakingly deft, stark execution of Cage-ian aesthetics. Two feature films are bisected and their halves spliced: Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up, about a wayward fashion photographer, and Brian De Palma’s Blow Out, about a wayward sound effects man, the latter homage to the former. The audio track of Blow Up is stripped and replaced with that of the unseen Blow Up. Thereupon all correlations of image and sound occur by chance, within the parameters of a relationship perceived, initiated and not further interfered with by the artist.

Marclay’s most recent camera-less video, The Clock, takes a Cage-ian premise to its nth degree. He created a twenty-four-hour loop composed of movie and television clips that show or tell the time, sequenced and calibrated chronologically so as presented, its audience confronts the correct current time. Its rule is obvious and directive. By contrast its fulfillment was far from certain, presuming that all the minutes of the day exist in the cinematic archive. As it happens, narrative film is replete with such images and references, although not quite round the clock. After three years of research and assembly, Marclay made allowance both for plenitude and scarcity. Hewing to strictiness, the master condition yielded ample dividends of choice and analogy. The relentless clock, rather than imposing a supremely dictatorial time code, instead offers a remarkably supple and elastic compositional meter. (Make no mistake that the process was demanding and arduous.) With such expanded interpretive range, Marclay produced one of his most overtly personal, generous and enjoyable works.

The Clock has similarities to but can be distinguished from structural (i.e., Michael Snow) or neo-structural (i.e., Douglas Gordon) works that use literal material, mechanical and syntactical properties of film as content. The Clock is post-structural. It elicits motive from the cinematic illustration of time and exploits the literary however not intrinsic aspect of narrative film, its imposition of continuity. Therein shots which are produced according to the vagaries of production schedule and in multiple takes can be reassembled into tight (or extended or flashback) sequences as the story requires, with care taken to match details such as costume, hair, makeup, props, set, lighting—and the clock in respect to the illusion of naturalism. In the course of its endless cycle, narrative episodes and motifs are not only specifically located in The Clock but can also be restored to their elongated durations, against the narrative conventions of abbreviation. A play of motives splices and stretches persistently ahead, almost never resolved, although often comically exposed for their artifice before abandonment.

In its 1440-minute running loop, The Clock features an unprecedented list of Hollywood stars and solid representation of actors from European and world cinema. The most enduring make repeated and often clustered appearances, resuscitated from the many phases of long (sometimes ongoing) screen careers. In many respects, The Clock is a like a ten-thousand-fold version of Telephones, with that many more narrative threads, many sufficiently spun in a few seconds. The stars and their characters are presented for stock recognition, or not, depending on how well a viewer knows movies, as they are rarely named and never credited. As massively constituted as it is by brand-name Hollywood, The Clock seems to portend its decline. A troupe of previously unsung extras comes to the fore, their identities unmistakeably emblazoned on their faces: Westclox, Rolex, Timex, Seiko, Sony, Sanyo, Baby Ben, Longines, Bulova, Casio, Citizen, Hamilton, Breitling, Cartier, Patek, among many, many more. I noticed Swiss Army. I think I saw Swiss Navy.

Marclay, a Swiss-American, was born in San Rafael, California, in 1955, raised and studied art in Geneva until 1977, studied at the Massachusetts College of Art, Boston, from 1977 to 1980, after which he lived in Manhattan for the next twenty-seven years. Work on The Clock commenced shortly after his move to London in 2007. Marclay had only limited prior connections to London, as compared to Berlin, Paris or Tokyo where he has had ongoing involvements as a musician and artist, to say nothing of Marclay’s profoundly deep roots in the avant-garde underground of New York, particularly Lower Manhattan. The move coincided with a decision to sharply reduce his musical activities. London is a city where artists’ workspaces are at even more of a premium than New York. Clearly Marclay had set himself up for a new way of working. In short order began the most immense project of his life with a computer for a studio. Marclay has mainly practiced in solitude. The scope of The Clock required assembling a team of assistants. All these changes contributed, almost invited, a new quotient of reflection, introspection, retrospection, attribution, communication and sentiment to an artist who had been heretofore scrupulously indifferent. References to Marclay’s life as he understands it emerged as seldom before. To no surprise, it is the life of an artist, but by this point that has matured to encompass meanings that are not for him alone. Clearly his team cracked the code of Marclay’s practice and provided him consistently appropriate segments with which to compose.

Marclay emphatically acknowledges that The Clock is a creation of time in London with all the hyper-awareness of place that naturally takes hold in new surroundings. The primary sign of this acknowledgement is the frequent appearance of the Clock Tower of Westminster Palace, popularly known as Big Ben, for its largest bell that tolls the hour. It is an automatic establishing shot for movies set in London. When in Dr. No, the first James Bond film, Big Ben appears in pre-dawn fog even prior to the first screen appearance of MI6 or 007, and in the clip’s 4 a.m.-ish inclusion in The Clock, this arguably signals the new day. Marclay has transformed it into something more; it becomes his, much as Andy Warhol made an indisputable claim on the Empire State Building. The recurrent solidity of the Clock Tower anchors and moreover guarantees the operating premise of The Clock, a computer-controlled video whose accuracy and reliability are paramount. The Tower stands like a parliamentary stamp of the authority on Greenwich Mean Time and the adoption of a global time standard.

As James Bond, Sean Connery made two appearances in Telephones. In The Clock, Bond comprehensively appears in all his castings: Connery, Lazenby, Moore, Dalton, Brosnan and Craig, along with assorted lovers, consorts, accomplices, villains and stooges. Espionage of the cinematic sort races against the clock and rescues the world from the expiration of time. Clocks are throttled as mercilessly as foes. Watches are double- and treble-loaded with secret functions such as garrottes, micro-saws and homing signals. Usually there is an obvious accordance with the consuming logic of The Clock; other times 007 just checks in like a passing security detail. The franchise itself is now perpetual, with recycling motifs and characters, and a perennial closing reminder that “JAMES BOND WILL RETURN.”

A special category of British recognition is reserved to the Beatles, who appear in only two clips by my count, one from each of their pre-Apple Corps features, George and John in A Hard Day’s Night (which could well be an alternate title for The Clock, or at least the experience of watching it) and Paul, John and Ringo in Help!. (Ringo makes an additional anomalous appearance, not as himself, decrying the tyranny of clock consciousness in a segment from The Magic Christian.) The Beatles rate special mention because, perhaps like James Bond, they fall under Marclay’s favour: “I like the Beatles because they are very popular.” He has made previous artworks about the Beatles, one being a crocheted pillow woven from their collected works on audiotape, helpfully titled The Beatles (1989), one’s only means of ascertaining the content. Marclay also produced a series of opened White Album covers embossed with lyric excerpts referring to sight and sound in 1990. Such reminiscences within his oeuvre are likely intentional. Marclay inserts cameos by fellow multivalent downtown New York artists as John Lurie (seen playing saxophone) and Kim Gordon (in a scene from Boarding Gate) just for personal associations. A strange echo of an early edition, Untitled (record without a groove) (1987), flashes by during the surreal wee hours section with a few frames of a clock face with no hands. And no opportunity to include a wrist-watched hand placing a phonograph tone arm on a rotating LP seems to have been overlooked.

Telephones is reprised not just in the formal structure of The Clock, but by the numerous movie telephone scenes that are used, as if salvaged from the editing suite of the former video. A key difference between Telephones and The Clock, besides length and complexity, is the subjective distinction for their respective audiences. The artifice of the telephone call is such that the viewer becomes a tacit eavesdropper. There is a satisfying, ironic indulgence listening in on a battery of characters playing at conversation when we know that they are unconnected. This pretense brings a smile of recognition. By contrast, our coping obsession with time is private; to share it with another is to admit anxiety. Viewing The Clock, in a purpose-built room that shuts out the proximity of everything else, stirs intense awareness of whatever we are not doing at any given hour. If the scenes playing before us show people taking a meal because its dinnertime, or going to sleep because its bedtime, that is a different sort of voyeurism, one of self-denial. Movies are designed not only for escape but reassurance, how daily behaviour is regulated not by the clock but by our social natures and community membership. Only the neurotic need time routine. For most, clocks follow and confirm ingrained behaviours.

A vigilant awareness of time suggests that something is, or is about to go, wrong. Rigid attention to ticking minutes and the seconds signals peril. Flinging away one’s watch, as Peter Fonda does in Easy Rider, indicates revolt. Dreadful time assumes a pernicious set of aural and phenomenal traits, the sway of the pendulum, a laggard minute hand that needs to be reset, the spring that needs to be re-wound, steady clicking of gear works, dripping water, a burning candle, fuse or cigarette, the silent slip of one LED numeral into the next. Absorption in Marclay’s The Clock is to risk time’s undertow, submergence in its depths and loss of one’s senses only twenty feet offshore from regular life.

Therefore a watch is more than a timepiece. It is a badge of honour, achievement, experience and resilience. It connotes personal identity. An heirloom watch, such as my grandfather’s Omega, is but one rite of passage that is retold with various degrees of solemnity or mockery in the scenes assembled by Marclay. The Clock collates many accounts of, attitudes toward and explanations for time—fateful, profound, naïve, romantic, comic, fatuous—the point being not to separate sense from fantasy from delusion, but to concede that time stands being retold, minute to minute, hour by hour, day after day. Marclay composes the story in a Cage-ian mode; the logic of the clock assigns each segment its place and assumes that legibility, if not coherence, will ensue.

One such morsel arrives at the perfect moment, a shot of a dead man’s pocket watch engraved with a “CM” monogram (also Christian Marclay’s initials) appears shortly before midnight, ostensibly the close of one day’s story, although The Clock obliviously and inexorably proceeds into the a.m. of the next. Fastidiously self-effacing, Marclay rarely allows so extraneous and bald a pseudo-autobiographical detail (or prophesy) into his art. Once in 1989, Marclay altered an album cover to read simply “1955,” the dawn of his day.