Tuesday, 10 January 2012

"The Clock" is one of the greatest films ever made - and it's 24 hours long!

If anyone hears that Christian Marclay’s stunning video installation, The Clock, is to be shown again in Britain, please give me a shout. I mentioned the work briefly in a post I wrote after returning from Venice last year, where it was being shown at the city’s  international Biennale art show. You can see a BBC2 Culture Show item about it here.

If you can't be bothered with Alan de Botton, here's what I wrote about it:

“…a 24-hour film made up of some two thousand clips from commercial movies, all of which contain references to a specific time: when it’s actually 3.34pm here in the real world, there’ll be a series of clips featuring shots of clocks or watches or actors actually referring to 3.34pm. I watched for just over an hour, and was extremely sorry to leave – I’m not sure it was art, but it was mesmerising and strangely thought-provoking.”

So thought-provoking, it turns out, that I can’t get it out of my head, especially when watching a film or TV drama containing a close-up of a watch or a clock (which turns out to be most of them). And I now think it is a work of art. The only reason I’m returning to the subject here is that, until now, I have invariably loathed and despised every piece of video installation art I've ever been subjected to. Roger Scruton once described photography as “the art form for the untalented”, but I thought that a bit sweeping – there are some damned fine photographs out there, and there’s certainly visual creativity involved in how a photograph is treated after it's been taken: simply, some people produce better photographs than others, which implies that talent plays a part.  
I reckon the true art form for the untalented is the video installation, because they're all equally rubbish. Making people feel uncomfortable by manipulating lighting, sound effects and video doesn’t strike me as that hard – I’m pretty sure that, armed with an Arts Council grant and a suitable venue, I could scare the crap out of most visitors. Or fool them into believing they were watching something politically “deep”. The level of political or emotional insight behind all installations is stuck at the level of most “Occupy” protesters' – “Like, America’s so fascist, man” or “Hey, capitalism’s like all about like crushing the human spirit, y'dig?” or “Men – jeez, what pigs!” or “Gee, if we all like got together and talked I mean that would be like so totally cool!"

In order to control an urge to hunt the “maker” down in order to share with them your true opinion of their abilities by applying a blunt instrument to their tiny, unthinking, cliché-infested skulls, one looks for evidence of craft skills – anything that will provide a fig-leaf for what is demonstrably either a product of cosmic stupidity or conscienseless charlatanism. But craft appears to be so entirely absent, you find yourself wondering what the “artist” did with the rest of the day on which they dreamed up and assembled this pile of shoddy cack.   
But The Clock is a different matter altogether. That may be because, despite the way it's always described, it isn’t an “installation” at all; It’s a compilation movie which, because it  lasts for 24 hours, can’t be shown in standard cinemas. (The added complication is that Marclay hasn’t paid for the right to use any of the thousands of film and TV clips that make up the movie  – if the film started appearing at local multiplexes, competing with "product", I presume the film studios would have their lawyers swarming all over it. Mind you, it’s been sold to several museums at $500,000 a pop, so maybe Engulf & Devour will eventually take notice  and try to spoil everyone's fun.)

Apart from it being a movie, there would appear to be an absence of what normally passes for political thinking in Modern Art circles: if Marclay expects me to feel guilty about being an overfed, exploitative, white Westerner, the message went over my head. As for craft, it’s there in painstaking abundance – The Clock took two years to make, and the evidence for that is up there on the screen.

As soon as you sit down at a screening (obviously people come and go all the time) you start anxiously checking your watch to see whether what’s happening on the screen is genuinely synchronized with real-world time. Then you titter excitedly whenever a clock or watch appears on the screen. Then you lapse into silence and start thinking about – well, I expect it’s different for everyone. In no particular order, here's a selection of some of the myriad thoughts that passed through my bonce:

God, we spend an awful lot of our lives angsting about the time. I wonder how many thousands of great film and TV programmes I’ve seen. What would life have been like without them? Have I wasted too much time gazing at dramas instead of living one? Or should I have read more and watched less? There are an awful lot of great-looking old movies I still haven’t seen – that one looks brilliant! Why did Marclay do this? What’s he trying to say? Maybe he’s not saying anything – it’s all about our reactions. How did he and his helpers not go crazy spending 24 months on this? Where did he get all the source material?  Did he have teams of people going through these films at x32 speed? But then how did they select the clips where time is mentioned rather than shown? Why are we all sitting here staring at the screen like zombies? My time on earth is finite – there are only so many minutes and seconds left. Time on a sundial – that’s clever! Should I leave now? Why isn’t this boring? I wish I could stay for the full 24 hours!...

On and on and on.

I lasted for about an hour and fifteen minutes (3PM until 4.15PM or so) and I really didn’t want to leave. But, as in the film, time was pressing.

The Clock debuted in London in 2010 at the White Cube gallery, and was then shown at the Hayward between February and April 2011. It’s been to New York, Boston, Jerusalem, Paris, Yokohama and Los Angeles, and next year travels to Canada and Australia. Marclay won the Golden Lion award at the Venice Biennale (deservedly - I speak with authority because  I saw just about every bloody artwork there: I'm not sure my feet have fully recovered, even after five months).

If you get a chance to see it, please don’t pass up the opportunity. Ideally, the BBC would buy it and show it non-stop for a week on BBC4 (better yet, scrap all that nonsense on BBC3 and run it there). But, unfortunately, as those channels time-share bandwidth with CBBC and CBeebies, parents and rugrats would probably kick up a hell of a fuss. Then again, there’s always my old pal, the Red Button – why not stick it up on BBCi? Alternatively, Sky could take the plunge and show it on Sky Arts 1 or 2 – or behind their red button - thereby stealing some of the BBC’s cultural kudos.

I rarely feel gratitude towards a modern artist, but Christian Marclay is an exception. Genius, I reckon.

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