Some artworks acquire significance gradually; others are noisily proclaimed masterpieces from the outset. Firmly in the latter camp is Christian Marclay’s The Clock (2010), in which thousands of stolen moments from the history of cinema are collated into a 24-hour filmic “timepiece” that mirrors the real time of the film’s duration through myriad glimpses of clocks and watches and snatches of dialogue.
It is perhaps unsurprising that Marclay’s latest exhibition at White Cube, following the success of The Clock, conveyed an air of “after the party” dissipation. In one of the largest galleries, a shelf of pub glasses of various shapes ran around the perimeter of the room to create an incidental sculptural frieze of empties. Resembling a Haim Steinbach shelf of commonplace trinkets, albeit with none of that artist’s calculated preciousness, the installation hinted at a main event already passed.
Pub Crawl (2014), an 11-channel video installation lining White Cube’s central corridor, picked up the motif of the empty vessel. In each projection, the camera pans along a nondescript stretch of London pavement, borne by an invisible wanderer who pauses along the route at any stray bottles, glasses or cans (smeary leftovers of nighttime revels)—tapping, breaking, clinking or rolling them. Spread across the concurrently playing videos, these actions mount into an accidental symphony of splintered, glassy percussion. The downward tilt of the camera meanwhile produces a sequence of ever-changing and near-abstract compositions—slabs of pavement and wall that reel past to the jittery soundtrack. A far cry from the ingenious segueing and juxtaposition seen in The Clock, this is a work whose fascination resides in its apparent scarcity of design, whether sonic or visual.
A series of canvases and works on paper had a more crafted quality. These were spattered, colorful compositions—part printed, part painted—evoking Abstract Expressionist works and centering on examples of cartoon onomatopoeia like “PLOP” and “SQUISH.” Camouflaging the exclamations within thickets of pattern or gestural drips, the pieces felt overworked and unnecessarily luscious (“after the party” in a rather different sense), gaining nothing on Roy Lichtenstein’s slicker transcriptions. The silent video installation Surround Sounds (2014-15), projected around the walls of a darkened chamber, teased apart the same cartoon phrases more cleverly. The words morph and trippily dissolve, their declarative function unraveling into a series of glitch-like images (kaleidoscopic patterns, an unbroken chain of M’s whirring around the room). Intentionally or otherwise, they vividly evoke the patterns of early screensavers: brash signifiers thus transmute into more ambiguous vectors of meaning.
On the afternoon I visited, Marclay himself was present for the last of a series of performances and happenings punctuating the exhibition’s run. Various contemporary composers had been invited, over the course of the show, to respond to the sounds of Pub Crawl in live performances with members of the London Sinfonietta. Marclay played a sequence of vinyl recordings on turntables, manipulating the needles to create a Dionysian sound tapestry of recorded whistles and shrieks and reverberations. Transient, chance moments of melodic charm dissolved, over and over, into drunken dissonance.
This sense of dissolution was nicely paralleled by a separate series in which musical scores were encased in wooden boxes. Each was fronted by a glass pane with a distortive bottle-bottom-like circle at its center, causing the lyrics and notations on the underlying page to stretch, skew and fracture. Here,“Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes,” the title of an old English popular tune, morphed through a kind of intoxication of the eye itself.
Certain moments nearly everyone remembers: where you were, for instance, at 8:46 am on September 11, 2001. Other moments are more forgettable: what you were doing, say, last Tuesday at 6:32 pm. Christian Marclay’s The Clock (2010)—a mesmerizing compilation of thousands of movie clips that include timepieces or references to time—ticks off each minute as if it were the most momentous in the 24-hour cycle we casually call a day. Over its 1,440 minutes, synched to the real time of the day (complete 24-hour screenings were offered on weekends), The Clock traverses a spectrum of human experience. At 11:14 am snipers take aim at an unseen target; at 3:53 pm businessmen debark from an airplane; at 5:40 pm a woman whispers “goodbye, Lawrence” as she tosses a packet of letters into a fire.
Cinema employs many conventions to distort time in the service of narrative; it’s partly why the medium is so escapist. Here, Marclay does the opposite, adhering to the staccato passing of each minute to disrupt—or reconfigure—the storyline. Curiously, this exposes the artifice of cinema while making its fiction seem more real: you know that Jack Nicholson patiently waiting for the clock in his office to hit 5 pm on the day of his retirement is just a film, but when the hands of his clock click into position at the exact instant those on your watch do, it gives you pause.
Influenced by Duchamp, John Cage, musique concrète, Fluxus and No Wave, Marclay has plumbed the intersections of visual and audio media through three decades of performance, collage, sculpture, installation, photography and video. Along with the first hip-hop artists, he was among the pioneering turntablists of the late ’70s. Although The Clock lacks direct sonic references, Marclay’s background is evident in the video’s nuanced editing, which lays a more lyric rhythm over the uniform beat of passing minutes. Some clips are long and include multiple shots (the final shootout in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly enjoys ample running time); other clips are short and have just one or two (Angelina Jolie, in Gone in Sixty Seconds, makes only a brief appearance). Marclay often intercuts clips from the same film throughout a series of others—at 5:20 pm, for example, a man climbs out of a building’s upper-story window onto a ledge; after multiple clips from other movies, he reappears at 5:28, hugging the wall as he edges past a large clock mounted on the outside of the building. Cuts sometimes jump abruptly and other times flow seamlessly, and sound is carried over to soften more jarring visual transitions. This looser rhythm choreographs a range of emotions, revealing the dissonance between time felt and actual. As Jane Austen wrote, “I cannot be dictated to by a watch.”
The feverish reception that has met The Clock since its fall premiere in London might be partially attributable to our simple love of movies—a passion the piece certainly fuels. But it may have more to do with the way The Clock brilliantly illuminates the fleeting yet concrete nature of time, situating us, alongside our beloved Hollywood heroes and villains, in a chronology both fabulous and very, very real.
Photo: Christian Marclay: The Clock, 2010, video, 24 hours; at Paula Cooper.