In most cases, movies are a two-hour escape from the minutiae of daily life. Watching Christian Marclay’s The Clock—a massive and impressive video supercut now at the Museum of Modern Art in New York—is a full-scale immersion in it. Marclay, a Swiss video and sound artist, has masterfully knit together more than 10,000 film clips in service of one animating idea: the mundane minute-by-minute passage of time.
The monumental work is 24 hours in total, with each clip featuring a clock or watch showing the actual time of the world outside. The segments range in length from just a few seconds to a minute or more, and come from a broad range of films—everything from the silent era to film noir to spaghetti westerns to Hollywood blockbusters. In some clips, time is peripheral: a character makes a passing reference to it, or glances at a watch. In others, time is of the essence: In a clip from Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps, the hero must stop a bomb planted inside Big Ben from detonating by climbing out onto the clock face and physically preventing the minute hand from reaching 11:45. Sometimes, the reference to time is a playful one: Back to the Future’s famously broken clock tower, stuck at 10:04 since that fateful thunderstorm in 1955, makes an appearance in the series’ second movie, set in 2015.
All this may sounds tedious—and perhaps even gimmicky—in the abstract, but in person it’s quite the opposite. Sabine Breitwiser, the exhibition’s curator, says that people report a common experience when they come to see The Clock: they plan to stop by for an hour, and end up staying for three or four. The work is powerfully hypnotic, a continually ticking clock in which you somehow lose yourself.
The Clock debuted in 2010, and has been shown at dozens of venues in the years since, most recently opening at MoMA on December 21. But on New Year’s Eve, it will be shown uninterrupted at the museum for the first time, from 10:30 am on December 31 through 5:30 pm on January 1, giving visitors a rare opportunity for extended viewing, punctuated by a champagne toast at midnight. “People assemble at the Rockefeller center, and of course Times Square is nearby,” Breitwiser said. “This will really be the destination for New Years’ Eve.”
The work stems from another of Marclay’s unique contributions to the world of video and sound art: a 1995 work called Telephones. The 7-minute-long is a collage of film clips showing actors speaking into telephones; what’s remarkable is that it came more than a decade before the launch of YouTube and the popularization of the video mashup. Years later, while working on a “video score” of dramatic video set to play alongside an ensemble of live musicians, Marclay decided to include movie clips of clocks at a few intervals during the piece in order to help them keep time. Then, he told the New Yorker, he had an intriguing idea: “Wouldn’t it be great to find clips with clocks for every minute of all twenty-four hours?”
For the next three years, he worked with a team of assistants to watch thousands of DVDs and rip any scene with a clock or watch or even a mention of the time. Gradually, they accumulated enough footage to fill an entire day; all the while, he meticulously catalogued and stitched the pieces together to create the 24-hour piece.
At MoMA, The Clock is shown exactly as it is everywhere else, down to the seating (rows of comfortable grey couches, clearly meant for extended viewing). When Marclay sells his work, it comes with mandatory rules and operating instructions. “We had to build the proper space inside our contemporary galleries, with fabric on the wall, with carpet,” Breitwiser said. “It's essentially a black box with ideal viewing conditions.” After Marclay performs a technologically complex installation procedure—the work, far too large for a DVD, is actually a computer program that includes separate data archives for the video and audio tracks—it runs 24 hours a day, even when the museum is closed, to ensure it stays precisely synchronized.
The action in The Clock ebbs and flows—interminable scenes of people preparing tea or taking the streetcar to work punctuated by the drama of, say, an old-fashioned gunfight or the delivery of a jury’s verdict. But more than the selection of clips, Marclay’s mastery is evident in the precise and imaginative way they’ve been joined together. Sometimes audio from one scene bleeds into another: a news telecast seamlessly transitions into a character watching TV, the anchor’s voice just barely audible. At 9:50 am, after the villain from Die Hard With a Vengeance (1995) tells the heroes (Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson) that they have 30 minutes to stop a bomb from exploding at the Wall Street subway stop, they begin a mad dash through the streets of Manhattan. Then, 30 minutes later at 10:20 am, after clips of other men running through other cities and dozens of unrelated clips, the action returns to New York City, where Willis’ John McClane finds the explosive device on a crowded subway train. Even though the original movie compressed that gap into a few minutes, Marclay literally reinterprets that half hour to powerful effect.
Spend enough time with The Clock and an entirely unexpected narrative emerges from the fragments of existing ones—a strange sort of order takes hold. At each hour, on the hour, a flurry of activity: businessmen hurrying into offices for appointments, schoolchildren from different countries and eras all flipping over their exams. Patterns emerge: The late morning is full of oversleeping teenagers hitting the snooze button; the early afternoon features secretary and office workers taking lunch. The Clock, in short, is a strangely moving portrait of an entire cinematic day.
Usually, when a movie’s good enough, the audience loses track of the time. The Clock invites viewers to zone out, but constantly reminds them exactly what time it is. Drowning in the current of scenes and events, it’s easy to forget about many things, but time is not one of them. “The Clock really is a clock,” Breitweiser, the curator, told me. “Everyone is watching the time go by.”