Yesterday I paid a visit to the British Art Show at the Hayward Gallery on the South Bank. Exhibited were a range of contemporary artworks, from drawing to sculpture to photography, variously entertaining and confusing – including Roger Hiorns’ plain ridiculous performance piece consisting of a naked man watching a fire on a bench. In reality I was there for one thing, which I’d first seen at the White Cube Gallery back in November: Christian Marclay’s incredible 24-hour film, The Clock.
Marclay’s work is a collage of clips from the history of cinema, all of which contain visual representation and/or oral mention of the time; in each case, whatever you see or hear is the actual time – it’s literally a clock. And whilst that might sound a feat in itself, as a basic premise it does the artist a disservice – far from simply finding and compiling footage, Marclay has melded sound and vision together stunningly, cutting the clips in such a way as to create the illusion of a continuous (if elusive) narrative – time-bending phone conversations, doors opening into different decades, black-and-white looks to the right met with technicolor glances to the left.
It’s simultaneously wildly dynamic and firmly grounded, as we leap haphazardly from era to era, watching fashions change (some hideous watches) and actors age and become young again – whilst, all the while, the minutes plod predictably by. It’s a striking demonstration of how normal cinema exists outside of time, or at least within its own set of temporal rules – after all, I’d seen lots of these clips before, but never stopped to register what the timepieces actually read. If someone says ‘see you in half an hour’ in a film, ‘half an hour’ doesn’t really mean anything other than a vague reference to the future. Here, each such statement takes on a whole new significance.
Of course, you’d be hard pressed to see anything more than a small fraction of what’s on offer. Indeed, the fact of this piece’s unending nature poses something of a challenge – sitting and watching, you’re left to ask the question ‘When should I leave?’, endlessly confronted by the passing of time. But as tens, hundreds, thousands of clips rolls by you continue to sit, revelling in the nostalgia, admiring the craft in the editing, in awe of the sheer magnitude of this achievement.
I want a DVD version that I can put on my wall and use as my clock. I don’t think it would ever get dull. I’m wary of sliding into hyperbole – but I think The Clock is one of the most brilliant things I have ever seen.