If Christian Marclay Could Put Time in a Bottle (If Words Could Make Wishes Come True)
Back in LA for a much-needed winter reprieve. Settled into our seats at the Arclight, waiting for the movie to begin—Drive, one of the wildest cinematic rides in recent memory, a more perfect movie experience you can't imagine—we were reminded of why it is that we still go to the movies. Especially here in Hollywood, the company town. We go to be transported, in the sense of being both emotionally moved and taken outside of ourselves, to hold the everyday world at arm's length, to be told great stories, whether believable or not. But say you're going to the 6:40 screening and your friends are stuck in traffic. You nervously check your watch, it's 6:25, then 6:30. You hope they make it to the theater in time. The previews will buy them an extra five or ten minutes. You've got good seats but will they find you in the dark? Even if they're only a few blocks away, Sunset is bumper-to-bumper. So near and so far. We've all been there and it's a major drag. (If Ryan Gosling were behind the wheel, they would have been there by now.) Christian Marclay's video The Clock (2010) is that anxiety times the longest day of your life. It's what we go to the movies to avoid.
A lot of positive ink has been spilled over The Clock. Perhaps too much at this point, with people gushing over it either because they really do believe it's "an abundant, magnificent work" (Financial Times), that it's "relentless and compelling" (The Guardian), and "utterly transfixing" (The Huffington Post), or gushing because they've been conditioned to respond so predictably to the plodding ambition that passes for genius these days. That's entertainment! And Hooray for Hollywood. But this is art, or it's supposed to be. There are many who love the guessing game that accompanies Marclay's video—as they identify scenes from their favorite movies and TV shows, scoring points with their fellow viewers—quite possibly the same people who made Trivial Pursuit so popular in its day. If this was your idea of fun then you couldn't beat The Clock, an interminable video game in which the audience, like its creator, congratulates itself for cleverly sorting all the pieces of the puzzle. And don't discount the fact that Puritanism continues to pervade American culture. We admire hard work and fortitude, though sadly we're too easily impressed by grandiosity and duration. Critics back in 1964 weren't falling all over themselves for Andy Warhol's Empire, but that film is simply a silent, static shot of the Empire State Building in black-and-white. With no giant gorilla or aviation stunts, not much happens over the course of its eight-plus hours. The Clock, in stark contrast, is practically action-packed, anxiety-ridden, and runs for 24. Not that there's any great mystery or suspense. Because no matter where you come in during a screening of The Clock, you would have to be an imbecile not to have figured out what's going on within a very short while. An imbecile or a dim-witted child. Maybe the space between Warhol's Empire and Marclay's Clock is the end of the proverbial line, the dead end for the avant-garde in film. While The Clock was packing them in at the Paula Cooper Gallery in New York, with an impatient, agitated crowd stretching all the way down the block on weekends (the mob mentality reared its ugly head now and then), someone went around Chelsea and anonymously left decals on nearby lampposts which read:
And yet the accolades streamed in, and continue to do so. All very troubling for a few Hollywood film editors who read about The Clock, apparently two years in the making, and wondered: What took him so long? Friends who live in LA were nonplussed, noting that The Clock wasn't that different from the sort of montage you see every year on the Academy Awards show, or for that matter what's served up every day to the tourists on the Universal Studios Tour. Well, different in its ambition and its intent, which was what exactly? A number of film students randomly polled at UCLA wondered why Marclay went to all the trouble, what he was after. Despite being mostly baffled, they were in agreement on the likelihood that Marclay had made The Clock for the same reason that movie studios obscenely pump millions into one dubious project after another: they are in search of a blockbuster. And there's nothing like a hit movie and the sweet smell of success. Marclay's video, please take note, is not a unique work but an edition of six, each one priced at half a million dollars, with all of them sold ostensibly to museums. (One wonders if there is an "artist's proof, or proofs?, the extra copies that artists and galleries keep for themselves, saving for a rainy day, and which can quietly come on the market at a later date.) Having not paid a dime for any of the clips he used, Marclay claims, and rightly so, "fair use," while the museums that now own and show the video will certainly charge their increasingly steep admission fees. What for Marclay was free for the taking, the public will have to pay for. The relentless ticking of The Clock was troubling as well for a young French artist named Etienne Chambaud, who you've probably never heard of, but who figures into the story of Marclay's opus, little hand to its big hand, a ghost haunting the machine.
Chambaud, while still an art student back in 2003, began work on a piece titled L'Horloge, which translates as The Clock. His project, which predates Marclay's by about five or six years and went public in 2005, involves a vast indexing of still images of clocks that are arranged minute-by-minute to describe an entire day. Chambaud's images come entirely from films, where Marclay's are sourced from film and television. Chambaud's images of time retain their identity as pictures, each minute represented within its frozen pictorial frame and held for a minute—a sort of slow motion flip-book—while Marclay's sequenced images are moving, not held to 60 seconds, and create a motion picture. Marclay relies not only on images of clocks, watches, and cuckoo clocks, but all manner of visual and audio devices to advance the minutes, while Chambaud remains mostly faithful to the image of the clock. Told silently via still images of equal duration, Chambaud's pacing is more measured, less frantic than Marclay's "all singing, all dancing" approach, where we hear the cuckoo as it pops out of its little chalet, and the pace of his montage varies. Chambaud's piece exists as software, meaning that it doesn't have a precisely fixed form. One can access any number of images to represent 12:00 midnight, for example. His piece, like time, repeats and yet has fluidity. Chambaud has yet to find an image for every minute within a 24-hour period, and where images are missing—perforations in time—his screen turns solid blue for sixty seconds. These "blanks" encourage viewers to project image-intervals of their own, allowing for the space of their imagination. Marclay's video, as The Guardian review painfully reminds us, is relentless. Although Chambaud's piece has been shown,* and sold (most notably to the Collection FRAC Ile de France in Paris), and written about, it remains a work in progress, something the artist can add to and alter, a time piece not only with regard to its overriding subject but in terms of its potential unfolding. Marclay's Clock is the director's cut. Among viewers who have seen sections of the video in the early morning hours—between 4 and 5 AM, for example—it has been noted that Marclay, by necessity, has fudged some of the transitions. After all, none of us can account for every minute of the day.
Images depict 9:55 through 10:00 PM in Chambaud's L'Horloge
By now you're probably wondering if Marclay ever saw Chambaud's L'Horloge. He may never have laid eyes upon it, or even heard of it. You simply must give him the benefit of the doubt. And yet Chambaud's work exists, even though when you Google it you inevitably end up reading about Christian Marclay. Whether pointed out by journalists or by Marclay himself, these reports have emphasized the artist's "heroics," his suffering from carpal tunnel pain, and lamented the demise of numerous computer mice. Much of what was been written about The Clock makes only passing mention of the half dozen "research assistants" who watched movies on his behalf. Chambaud, meanwhile, assembled all of L'Horloge on his own, without the help of studio minions. When asked why he made his piece, Chambaud has spoken of the countless hours that he, like many of us, has spent sitting in the dark at the movies, and how L'Horloge is an attempt to make sense of this behavior, to be able to say that his time wasn't completely misspent after all. With the many accolades showered upon Christian Marclay, most notably his being awarded the prestigious Golden Lion at the 2010 Venice Biennale, you might think that Chambaud would have had something to say in defense of his own piece, and yet he, as his film, has remained silent. Though different from and—at least as a purely visual, conceptual art/film experience— perhaps even superior to Marclay's video, the two works share an uncannily similar structure. Ever audience-minded, Marclay's "if you build it, they will come" is pure Hollywood, complete with its happy (never) ending. Allusions to Kevin Costner and pretensions to Marcel Proust aside, The Clock willingly revels in its complicity with the entertainment industrial complex, a force which increasingly holds sway over art in our time. One can easily imagine, in the nightmare that so often supplants waking life, in a world of "anywhere minutes" and chronophobia, Christian Marclay bounding down the red carpet on his way to accept a special Academy Award for The Clock, presented no doubt by a ghostly Tilda Swinton and a ghastly James Franco. As they beam blankly on either side of him, Marclay's seemingly endless acceptance speech is rudely interrupted by the blaring of the band, a schmaltzy version of an old song by Jim Croce, as we cut to commercials for Lexus, Cialis, and Doritos.
* L'Horloge was first exhibited in 2005 at Moca in Lyon, France; and subsequently in 2006 at Cortex Athletico in Bordeaux, France and Espace Ricard in Paris; in 2008 at Le Plateau in Paris; in 2009 in the exhibition, "Time As Activity" in Aalst, Belgium, and at Maison du geste et de l'image in Paris; and most recently by galerie Bugada & Cargnel at the 2010 Armory Show in New York.