The Clock: the timepiece that became a masterpiece

The Clock: the timepiece that became a masterpiece
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When I made the questionable decision after a night out to go see Christian Marclay’s 24 hour film, The Clock, at the Tate Modern, I expected to see more people like me: young, irreverent and not entirely sober. I was surprised to find the contrary however; devoted Marclay fans of all ages, a queue of over an hour and a surprising level dedication for 4 am after a Saturday night.

The idea behind The Clock is brilliantly simple yet incredibly bold. The movie lasts 24 hours and since its first release at White Cube gallery in 2010, it has become one of the world’s most popular pieces of conceptual art. It’s not a traditional movie however, but a patient collage of film clips showing thousands of glimpses of clocks and scenes of people telling the time, all set up to correspond to real time when it is shown. Its synchronization with real time turns the artwork into a functional clock: whatever time it is, it’s being announced by a film scene.

It has been described as “mesmerizing”, “addictive” and “a masterpiece of our times”. Zadie Smith said that it’s “neither bad nor good, but sublime, maybe the greatest film you have ever seen”. A caffeinated older couple I chatted while waiting in line told me that it’s their fourth time trekking to the Tate to see it.

The film is an immensely laborious feat of archive work that has amassed a cult-like following in the past 8 years since its unveiling. It’s easy-to-grasp concept but incredibly challenging process forces viewers to meditate on time, our obsession with it and how there’s actually never enough of it.

The Clock earned Marclay the Golden Lion award at the Venice Biennale in 2011 and eventually he sold it to six major institutions around the world causing it to almost always be playing somewhere. As per Marclay’s instructions however, it can’t ever be played in more than one location simultaneously. It has been playing at the Tate Modern since September 2018, and is nearing its final weeks with January 20 fast approaching.

In contrast to the idea of escaping time in cinema, The Clock is a constant reminder to how much time viewers spend watching it. As you spend more time with the film, actors reappear at different points in their careers. To make this theme more obvious, Marclay sprinkled around symbols of death in connecting shots.

“I see the piece as a giant memento mori.” Marclay told the BBC in 2010. Perhaps that’s why I embarked on it – because I turned 50. Maybe I’m having a mid-life crisis and thinking about time and how little time is left. But everybody relates to it because we’re all anxious about time going by.”

The single great truth about The Clock is that you will never be able to see it all at once. Marclay says that this makes its message about acceptance. “Some people are frustrated and feel they have to see all 24 hours. I say, ‘No no no!’ Just enjoy it for the moment. Enjoy what you can. When it’s time to eat or go to the bathroom, you leave.”

The final 24 hour screening is scheduled for January 12-13 and the last day for the current viewing at the Tate is January 20.