It is so unfair when great writers write about art. Us regular art writers can't possibly keep up. Damn you, Zadie Smith! Here is the triumphant ending from her incredible 2011 review of Christian Marclay's The Clock:
Film constantly reenacts and dramatizes this struggle with time: except in film, time loses. We are victorious. Narrative is victorious. We bend time to our will. We tie a man to the floor, put a gag in his mouth, and set the clock ticking—but we will decide how fast or slow that clock moves. ESTABLISH TIME: a note written in a thriller. And this is film’s whole challenge and illusion. Without it there is no story, no film. If we believe Marclay, no shot in the history of cinema is as common as the desperate close-up of a clock face. ESTABLISH TIME! But the time thus established has, until now, always been a fantasy, a fiction. The Clock is the first film in which time is real.
A lot of people speak of a crisis in the purpose and value of the fictional realm. The Clock feels to me like a part of that conversation: a factual response to the fantasies of film. It has a very poor predecessor in the TV show 24, which also promised an end to “narrative time” but instead bent to commercial concerns, factoring in ad breaks, and was anyway, with its endorsement of torture, ideologically vile. With its real-time synchronization The Clock has upped the ante exponentially. Honestly I can’t see how you could up it much more. It’s the art object Sontag was hoping for almost half a century ago in Against Interpretation, which reminds me that this supposed crisis of the Noughties has in fact been going on a long time: “Transparence is the highest, most liberating value in art—and in criticism—today. Transparence means experiencing the luminousness of the thing in itself, of things being what they are.” A very long time. Plato would recognize it.
But what I love about The Clock is that while appearing to pass “beyond” fiction it also honors and celebrates it. Fiction is Marclay’s material; after all, he recycles it. What else is The Clock if not thousands of fictional interpretations of time repurposed to express time precisely. That’s why you don’t feel that you are watching a film, you feel you are existing alongside a film. People even leave the gallery following the conventions of time: on the hour, or a quarter past. No one can seem to stand to leave at, say, 6:07. Most wonderful is listening to people on their way out. “How did he do it, though? You can’t Google for clocks. How did he do it then? Did he have hundreds of people or what?”
The awe is palpable, and thrilling because it has become so unusual. A lot of the time, when standing in a gallery, I am aware of two feelings, one permitted, and one verboten. The first is boredom: usually the artist’s subject is boredom (the boredom of twenty-first-century life, etc.), and my reaction is meant to be one of boredom, or, at the most, outraged boredom. The second is “wonder at craft.” I am not meant to have this feeling. Asking how something was made, or having any concern at all with its physical making, or being concerned with how hard the thing might have been to make—asking any of these questions will mark me out as a simpleton. The question is childish, reactionary, nostalgic.
But The Clock is not reactionary, and manages to reintroduce these questions, without being nostalgic or childish. Marclay has made, in essence, a sort of homemade Web engine that collates and cross-references an extraordinary amount of different kinds of information: scenes that have clocks, scenes with clocks in classrooms, with clocks in bars, Johnny Depp films with clocks, women with clocks, children with clocks, clocks on planes, and so on, and so on, and so on. You’re never bored—you haven’t time to be.
Really an essay is not the right form in which to speak of it. A visual representation of some kind would be better; a cloud consensus, or a spectacular graph. It’s hard to convey in words what Marclay does with data, how luminous he makes it. And if this data were all lined up on a graph, what conclusions would we draw? That life is epic, varied, and never boring, but also short, relentless, and terminal. The Clock is a joyful art experience but a harsh life experience because it doesn’t disguise what time is doing to you. At 2:45 PM, when Harold Lloyd hung off the face of that clock, I couldn’t access the delight I have felt in the past watching that fabulous piece of fiction, because if Harold was up on that screen it meant I had somehow managed to come at the same time again, the early afternoon, despite all my efforts to find a different moment, between childcare and work. I looked around the walls of the gallery where all the young people sat, hipsters, childless, with a sandwich in their bags and the will to stay till three in the morning. I envied them; hated them, even. They looked like they had all the time in the world.
I haven't written about The Clock. I saw it only once, at the Venice Biennale, and not for long enough—passing through the mega-show. I probably stayed for 90 minutes. I fell asleep twice, and I didn't take that as a bad sign. The Clock weirdly authorized me to do whatever I wanted to do while I was there, as if I were, indeed, existing alongside it.