Christian Marclay: The Clock
Until 20 January 2019
Fictional time is nothing but trickery. Bending the realities of time is at the heart of any good narrative, not least in cinema, where days, weeks, months – even years – are neatly condensed into palatable 90-minute parcels. But it’s not done openly. Directors use montage and flashbacks to play subtly with timelines. We wilfully suspend our disbelief and give in to this cinematic sleight of hand.
Christian Marclay turns all of this on its head in The Clock, a 24-hour montage film made up of clips from over 100 years of cinema that either show a clock or reference the time. It’s perfectly synced to real time, meaning if you bundle onto one of the low-slung sofas in the Tate Modern at 3:17pm, as I did, that’s the time playing out on screen.
The result is as ingenious as it is simple. The Clock is a thrilling patchwork of cinematic history, ranging from obscure spaghetti Westerns to second-rate modern comedies. Charlie Chaplin gesticulates wildly on screen, only to be replaced by Tony Servillo, brooding in his inimitable Italian way. Black-and-white interchanges effortlessly with colour. Nicolas Cage reappears disconcertingly often. Superficially, it is every cinema buff’s dream, a kaleidoscopic museum of cinema that changes with every viewing. Some clips last a few minutes before changing; others appear for only a few seconds. When will the next film appear and, when it does, will you know it? The installation is a breeding ground for one-upmanship between cinephiles.
But beyond this is the innovative way the film plays with time. In the simple (albeit lengthy and painstaking) act of creating a temporal montage, the film breaks down the illusion of cinematic narratives. Suddenly everything on screen is happening in real time, or so it seems. The brevity of the clips means that plot details are irrelevant. Instead, Marclay’s filmic creation is propelled by the very idea of time itself. Time – a concept so banal and ubiquitous that we rarely stop to think about it – is the medium through which we connect with a farrago of characters and plots.
When you finally drag yourself away (which is difficult, trust me), you’re thrown back into the real world with a new appreciation for how hours, minutes and seconds silently dictate everything. Yes, it’s a blast to go filmspotting. But what makes this installation truly special is the way in which time is pulled out from the shadows and placed unashamedly centre-stage. Maybe it’s disconcerting to be reminded of the inexorable passage of time. Or perhaps it’s reassuring to know that time is something we all have in common. Either way, The Clock gets right to the heart of something so fundamental, so unequivocal, that we take it for granted.