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The Wexner Center for the Arts sports a new temporary clock tower on its building—the banner promoting Christian Marclay’s 24-hour film The Clock. The work debuted at London’s White Cube Gallery in 2010, won the Golden Lion award at the 2011 Venice Biennale, and has toured major international art venues to serious acclaim for the last few years. It has as yet not been shown in the Midwest, however, creating something of a coup for the university museum in Columbus. The Wexner has a long collaborative history with Marclay, though, dating back to 1990 when the artist created an architecture and sound piece on the exterior of the newly built museum. Using hammering devices that struck Peter Eisenman’s metal beams every hour, this earlier work also happened to be called The Clock, so it is fitting that Marclay’s latest iteration on the theme come back to the same venue.
The Swiss artist’s heritage playfully emerges in his tinkering with the inner workings of a new, twenty-first century timepiece. The Clock results from Marclay’s obsessive splicing together of brief segments mined from hundreds of films, each scene dependent in some way on its characters’ relationship to time. The end result faithfully charts the exact time of day by constantly presenting watches and clocks to viewers, updating us within a matter of seconds.
This complicated work of art repels a single definitive opinion. My thoughts, appropriately, splay out like hands working over a clock face. A metaphorical “small hand” represents the fact that this work, despite its very complicated construction, is reducible to a one-liner, and the experience very often feels that way.
On the other hand, the larger one, the film as film makes bold a historical statement. It returns us in a truly significant way to the early years of cinema, when people simply dropped into a theater whenever convenient and stayed for however long they wanted. Very short films ran on a loop as visual attractions, rather than feature-length narrative films that could only be comprehended if viewed from beginning to end. The basic experience of theater going and love of a new visual culture fueled the comings and goings of audiences. So far, I have popped in to watch The Clock at four different times, each according to various gaps in my schedule on campus. A constant flux of strangers claim and vacate their spots on one of the matching white couches in the dark room. Going to see The Clock feels like an exciting thing to do in the middle of the day, and its duration for a full 24 hours provides a generous diversion.
The most exciting space of time I have experienced so far was the five minutes just before noon. While one would expect a blast of Old Western gunfire to pepper the air just at that moment, the anticipation of noon proved even more exciting, as tensely expectant situations ticked by just before the hour. Near three o’clock you see school children preparing to leave school, but you also see adults going about their day, including the eponymous taxi driver DeNiro flirting with Cybill Shepherd at her political campaign office, making a date for four o’clock.
Because I work on a particularly underserved Soviet montage filmmaker, Esfir Shub, who created the first feature-length compilation film, I am continually aware of the rigor of Marclay’s project, both the length of the whole and the complex interdependence of its myriad parts. I find my mind wandering during the film’s less interesting moments to just how the artist could have watched and catalogued all these movies, only to find a sliver of perhaps five seconds, charted their exact time, and then placed these moments in a complex grid of found material. Old-fashioned black and white movies mingle with modern color films; giant clock towers play against tiny wristwatches; and round, calligraphic clockfaces vie with cubical digital screens’ glowing numbers. What holds these together is a rapt attention to time embedded in each cinematic moment, allowing disparate movie characters to share relationships on-screen in a way that feels oddly sentient, like strangers packed randomly in an elevator for the shared task of getting to a particular floor.
I have heard of people staying for hours on end in the little impromptu theater. While I love that idea, I do not think my attention span could hold up against the irritatingly constant thought that interrupts all this wonderful stuff—that, ultimately, the work boils down to a very basic concept. Nor is there a narrative-driven reason to stay beyond the point of boredom. You can only say that you were lucky enough to play with time in the way Marclay provides and, in the end, that really is reason enough to go. I intend to visit on several more occasions and at various times of day, rather than pretend this is a two-hour movie and box myself into the space of a Classic Hollywood narrative film. I want to continue to watch the invisible hand of time move story lines and characters around like marionettes, if only for a few seconds at a time.
The clock is literally running out though. The next opportunity to watch The Clock over a full 24-hour span will take place on April 6. Museum entry will be free after 8 p.m. that Saturday night and until 6 p.m. the following day, which is the official closing day of the exhibition.
Catherine Walworth is a writer living in Pittsburgh. View more articles by Catherine Walworth.