Test of Time
Paradoxically, the less free time I’ve had in recent years, the more fascinated I have become with works of art that require an extraordinary time commitment in order to be appreciated. I’m hopelessly attracted to musical compositions involving durational extremities (like La Monte Young’s The Well-Tuned Piano), time-based art installations (like the work of Marina Abramović), and extremely long novels (like David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest or Mathias Énard’s Zone, even though I still need to figure out a way to actually finish reading the latter). Even further afield from temporal practicality, I’m completely enamored with the idea of works that last 24 hours, because the concept of filling an entire day with a work of art seems like a magical and extremely beautiful proposition. Eventually I would love to create something this long myself, something that would be constructed to parallel the details of a specific day—sunrise, sunset, rush hour, sleep, etc. That said, I have yet to experience any 24-hour piece and I am not completely sure how I would do so. Time constraints aside, there are some other basic issues that would require planning and navigating around, not the least of which are such mundane matters as physical stamina, dealing with hunger, and other bodily functions.
Therefore I was extremely excited by the prospect of finally experiencing Christian Marclay’s The Clock last week, although to describe it as a 24-hour work of art—as publications including The New York Times and The Guardian have done—is a bit of a misnomer. Although the work consists of a total of exactly 24 hours of unique content, a mash-up plundered from literally thousands of film and television segments in which the exact time of the day is depicted (either visually—e.g. an image of an actual clock—or in spoken dialog), it is a seamless loop that hypothetically could repeat in perpetuity. (A crew is required to ensure that the video is always completely in sync with the exact time in whatever location The Clock is presented in.) “There is no beginning and no end,” according to Marclay, who addressed a press conference in New York City on July 12 prior to the private press viewing of The Clock at NYC’s David Rubinstein Atrium. As part of the 2012 Lincoln Center Festival, The Clock opened to the general public on Friday, July 13 and it will remain open and free through August 1. Although closed on Mondays and only open from 8:00am to 10:00pm from Tuesdays through Thursdays, it will run continuously from 8:00am on Friday morning to 10:00pm Sunday night which offers folks the possibility of experiencing at least two complete cycles of it uninterrupted.
However, Marclay does not expect anyone to sit through The Clock for a full 24 hours; he admitted that he himself has never done so when I asked him if he had. (I had to ask.) “It is not an endurance test,” he explained. Rather, unlike cinema, which he adamantly proclaimed The Clock is not, it is designed for people to come and go as they desire. The audience members themselves determine how much of it they want to experience, and any chosen time frame is theoretically an equally valid experience of the piece. But as an audience member, I find being given that much liberty somewhat unsettling. If somebody has created something and I decide to experience it, I feel I have an obligation to endure all of it; to me it is part of the social contract of being an audience member. I never walk out during a concert, I always try to see every work that is part of an exhibition, and I invariably finish books once I start reading them, even books which are ultimately not fulfilling—often I will appreciate a book only once I’ve completed reading it. Admittedly, sometimes experiencing an entire work is not feasible or even possible. I was a bystander to Marina Abramović’s The Artist is Present (a performance art installation in which individual audience members sit across a table from a silent Abramović for an indeterminate amount of time). I was afraid to actually sit across from her, worried that I might never be able to stand up again. Similarly I have yet to travel to Alaska to experience John Luther Adams’s The Place Where You Go To Listen. This is another work with no beginning and no end, its electronically generated sonic content—determined by weather patterns—set up to last ad infinitum. There are very few things that I’m more interested in hearing, but how would I ever be able to tear myself away once I got there?
Thankfully if one were to attempt to experience all of The Clock, it would offer less of a challenge. After 24 hours, it becomes less like The Place Where You Go To Listen and more like Groundhog Day. And even if, like Phil Connors (the character played by Bill Murray in the film), your experience of going through the cycle over and over again eventually leads to a major mental breakthrough, the guards will kick you out after a maximum stay of 62 hours (the weekend hours at the David Rubinstein Atrium).
Last Thursday, I stayed for only approximately three hours (from roughly 10:45am to 1:45pm, which is a mere 1/8th of the work). I wanted to stay longer, but I knew that I’d only be allowed to remain for only about an additional hour before the screening room needed to be cleaned in preparation for the next set of advance opening guests. As the time wore on, I decided I didn’t want the jolt of being told to leave, especially after hearing Marclay’s remarks about wanting the audience to decide when to come and go, meaning that the only way to be true to his intentions is to leave on your own accord. But it was really difficult to do so.
Yet on another level it was extremely easy to leave since there were no cliffhangers whose resolution I knew I would be missing when I did. I knew exactly what would happen next: time would continue its unstoppable progression. While thousands upon thousands of narratives are woven through The Clock, contained within its constituent snippets from pre-existing films which are just long enough to actually get you interested in the characters, the individual story lines never resolve; rather they get lost and replaced with others as time marches forward. And in the three-hours of the work I sat through, interspersed between classic and more recent Hollywood fare, there were excerpts from French, German, Chinese, and Japanese films as well. None of the segments in foreign languages included subtitles, since what the people were saying didn’t matter. Yet that is not to say that The Clock has no plot. I witnessed the birth of a bunch of babies as well as a few murders, a suicide, and a couple of executions, but the details of every one of these were never revealed; their sole purpose was merely to show the passing of time, which is the ultimate plot line. When I left at 1:45, my biggest disappointment was not finding out what was going to happen to anyone I had been watching for the last three hours, but rather in missing his portrayal of 2:00pm—this was something I did not need to stay there to know he would do.
Of course, I experienced 2:00pm on Thursday after noon even though by that point I was no longer inside Marclay’s construct, or was I? After walking out of the space, I found myself walking south on Broadway to get to a subway train to return to my office—actually I needed to take two trains to get where I needed to be. Bizarrely, it felt as if I had never left. At the 59th street station, a digital display announced that the local train would be arriving in 0 minutes and, suddenly, there it was. Changing for the express at Times Square was as effortless: a similar sign displayed 0 as the train I needed to get on pulled into the station. I got off at Fulton Street and walked up onto the sidewalk. I decided to take some food back to my desk since it was already later than when I usually have lunch, and yet again, no wait. No one was in line ahead of me. It was jump cut after jump cut, just like The Clock, until I got to my desk, ate my lunch, turned on my computer, and attempted to begin to write down my thoughts about what I had just experienced which finally eroded my constant awareness of time over days and has morphed into what you are now reading.
If art is a mirror of life, and the most effective works of art change your experience of life, then The Clock totally worked for me. Back in February, when The Clock was being presented at the Paula Cooper Gallery, Will Brand expressed disappointment that Marclay broke his own rules and included many clips which did not seem to directly reference a specific time of day. But that didn’t bother me at all. We don’t always look at clocks in our day-to-day existence. So a relentless barrage of clock images and verbal time references without anything else would actually be less sincere. And in order for The Clock to be believable, the editing together of all of these audio and video fragments had to appear seamless and I thought that it did. If in order for his stitches to be perfect, he required footage to cut away to from time to time, as far as I’m concerned it’s as valid an artistic license as slightly flattening pure perfect fifths in order to work within a completely circular modulation chain. But I nevertheless had my own pet peeves. While it was nice to see noon on clocks all over the world, it is temporally impossible. When Big Ben chimes noon in London it’s already eight hours later in Tokyo and only 7:00am in New York City. But I travel too much, I suppose. Ultimately art is not life, art is art.
Part of why The Clock is so effective is it creates its own paradigms. That it does so by exclusively mining pre-existing work adds to its allure because it takes things that are familiar and makes them completely unfamiliar. And the fact that it eschews narrative plot lines through the use of content that constantly reinforces a collection of tried-and-true same story formulas, commercial motion pictures, makes it completely subversive. What is perhaps its most revolutionary aspect, however, is how it deals with time, which after all is the only thing it is about. Daniel Zalewski, in an extensive exegesis about The Clock’s genesis which appeared in The New Yorker, describes the essential challenge that The Clock poses to audiences of the cinema and/or television:
“People went to the movies to lose track of time; this video would pound viewers with an awareness of how long they’d been languishing in the dark. It would evoke the laziest of modern pleasures—channel surfing—except that the time wasted would be painfully underlined.”
But Zalewski’s assessment of Marclay’s challenge for film and TV audiences holds equally true for audiences for any kind of artistic product, especially music. Although music exists in time, it is most effective when you lose your sense of time within it somehow. Isn’t it only the 10 minute pieces you don’t like that feel like they’ve gone on for half an hour, while a 25-minute piece that you’re in love with seems to race by? The Clock, on the other hand, doesn’t ever move too fast or too slow. Yet, according to Marclay, who in addition to his recent forays in video art remains active as a composer and a DJ, even though “you’re constantly being told the time, you still can get lost in it.” I know that I did and still am.
In that sense, The Clock, shares a kinship with the “The Entertainment,” the mysterious final creation of avant-garde filmmaker James Orin Incandenza in David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest. “The Entertainment” was purported to have been so dangerous that anyone exposed to it would become incapable of doing anything other than viewing it. (Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but during the portion of The Clock I saw, one of the only clips that did not reference a specific time was the famous “Alas Poor Yorick” scene from the Laurence Olivier film of Shakespeare’s Hamlet which includes the words “infinite jest”.) Marclay might be concerned about our sanity when he suggests that we should not feel compelled to sit through all of The Clock. But even when we are not viewing it, we are, since its plotline, the passage of time, is something from which we can never escape.