Monday, February 28, 2011

Why I like Christian Marclay's Clock.

David Warner's Evil, from Time Bandits (1981); Christian Marclay, Quartet (2002)

As I have now written twice in defense of Marclay’s Clock without having made any effort to explain why, it is fair to ask at this point (as Michelle Vaughn did) why exactly I like this piece so much. Contemporary artists are steeped in criticism. The first review any artist gets is from another artist. We are trained to be articulate about our opinions and it is easy enough to spot fawning or contempt presented as criticism. Bad reviews are a bummer, but so are lame brained positive reviews. If written in good faith, by a critic committed to contemporary art, a negative review can tell you as much (if not more) about an artist you like as a positive review. As someone who enjoys reading well written, well considered, criticism of all sorts, the only thing more disappointing than a poorly explained or formulaic review (positive or negative), is a snarky one. I find contempt disguised as criticism particularly disappointing. With a high profile artist like Christian Marclay, there is prestige to be had by association - even to something the critic clearly believes is beneath them. I can easily understand why someone may dislike or be bored by Clock, I am totally flummoxed however, as to why anyone who takes contemporary art seriously, or their role as a commentator of art, would show contempt for a work of this quality.

I am not an art critic. What follows is not a review, these are the associations I made; the fun I had as an artist watching the work. I hope it will provide some explanation for my enthusiasm for the work as well the disappointment and confusion I have voiced. 
The Fab Four (I think Ringo is on the other end of the line); Chritian Marclay, Telephone (1995)

The first work of Christian Marclay’s that turned my head was Telephone - a video I saw at Paula Cooper’s annex space on a cathode tube video monitor as part of a group show. Telephone is hundreds of film clips montaged to show dozens of phones ringing - each taken from a different film - followed by dozens of different actors answering phones, some angry, others anxious or business like. The video goes on this way through every conceivable aspect of a phone call until it ends with a crazed finale of phones being placed, slammed down, and smashed against their receivers. I remember thinking at the time, that Telephone was the perfect example of the remix culture I watched grow up during the 80s.

When I began to watch experimental film from the 1960s and 70s in art school I recognized the familiar logic of the Beatles song, Revolution 9. Those early art film experiments were interesting, but I have always felt that what little signal they contained was overwhelmed by noise. Like the gestural splashes of AbEx painters, the film abstractions seemed too coded and individual for me to ever hope to make any sort of empathetic connection. Marclay's Telephone had something more like the logic of the music sampling of the 1980s. Unlike Revolution 9, which used original recordings, hiphop artists sampled and remixed bits of older music to create new compositions. And very much unlike the John Cage-sque randomness of Revolution 9, song structure was maintained by hiphop artists. Meanwhile, 80s industrial  bands like Negativeland and Laibach sampled and remixed in a way that authorship and originality were completely undermined. I had every reason to be excited by Telephone, it was an example of what I grew up listening to. 
Laibach in performance (2008); Alex Ross, Kingdom Come - super villain Von Bach (1996)

I was excited to see Quartet when it premiered in the same gallery space a few years later - except this time, instead of a TV tucked into a group show, Marclay was given the entire second story annex. Quartet was four, floor-to-ceiling projections, seamed together, to form a massively stretched wall of images. There was some buzz, but no line for Quartet. I watched the show, along with a small audience of gallery going regulars, from a line of benches set against the opposite wall of the gallery.

I thought Quartet was an ambitious follow-up on the promise of Telephone, but it was not one that colonized my imagination to the same degree as Telephone. It was too chaotic. Too much noise, not enough signal. To have the pleasure of surprise you need to have some predictability - not a strict system that must be slavishly adhered to, but without any formula what-so-ever there can't be an anticipation of how things might go. The arbitrary chaos of Revolution 9 never alows one to settle down, to get into a rhythm with the work. Telephone had that because we all know how phone calls are structured, the kinds of things people say on phones.
Negativland, Escape From Noise (1987); Christian Marclay, Body-Mix (1992)

Phone calls are predictable, but they are also strange. Imagine picking up the phone and having a stranger demand, without introduction, to know the time. This happens all the time in New York, your about to cross the street and someone turns to you and asks, “What time is it?” - no “Hello” (a greeting invented for the telephone), no “Hi, this is John” (a greeting unique to the telephone). Pedestrians in Paris might find this sort of abrupt exchange rude, but in New York, where people value their time more than formalities, it is a totally ordinary demand. And not even a Parisian would ask an abrupt time seeking pedestrian, “Who is this?!” - but that is exactly what you would do to an abrupt-time-seeking stranger on the phone. The strangeness comes from the discrete usages within the dislocated context of the phone.
Phone Booth Stuffing & Snuffing. 

I first became aware of the weirdness of telephone language sitting between to secretaries speaking to each other over the phone. If not for the phones they would have hollered across me to be heard, but as it was I could hear each of them clearly. I was struck by the absurdity, that they both felt it was necessary to say goodbye when they hung up, even though they were sitting across from each other in the same room, looking each other in the eyes, going nowhere. I began to listen to telephone speech with new ears.

Watching movies is equally, if not even stranger than talking on the phone. The artist Robert Smithson wrote that, “Time is compressed inside a movie house, and this in turn provides the view with an entropic condition. to spend time in a movie house is to make a ‘hole’ in ones life.” this is a wonderful turn on Carl Andre's observation that "A thing is a hole in a thing it is not." Marclay's Clock is a hole in time.
Time Hole inTerry Gilliam's Time Bandits (1981); and in Christian Marclay's installation of Clock (2010)

All of us have shared the dislocating moment of walking out of a theater after some dark nocturne movie and being caught off guard by the bright sunlight of midday - that weird sneeze... Or the sudden awareness of "compressed time" when we realize that a two hour film has ended after what felt like twenty minutes. But until I saw Clock I had never been so aware of the true strangeness of time in a movie house. Never before had I felt the “hole" as a "hole in a thing it is not” so completely. 

The first time I watched Clock was over the noon hour. I stuck around from 11:30AM to 1:30PM. What I saw a was dominated by the sorts of things you see in Hollywood movies: cowboys, bank robbers, assassins and adulterous rendezvous. It was a survey of our fantasies at noon. Tucked in among the Hollywood cliches were snippets of back and white ephemera. Bits of silent films, pre-war British dramas and God knows what else. As I got past the enevitably climactic hilarity of noon, the images settled into more mundane teritories of train trips and late lunch appointments and the anxious wait for a job interview. But as I was being moved a few seconds at a time through an alternate day - "the hole" - I also moving, one cinematic time stamp at a time, through my own very real day - "the thing it is not."as I watched time slip away I was aware that I had other things I need to get done. Clock was ticking away the hole Marclay was carving into my day.
The Time Bandits performing Me and My Shadow; Christian Marclay in front of a projection of Quartet.

The second time I saw the show was a week later. I entered the Gallery at 11:45PM and stayed until 3:45AM. Like noon, 12 midnight was a hilarious countdown leading to a cacophony of explosions, bells and chimes, but the four hours that followed were unlike the hours of the alternate afternoon. They were taken up with unhappy couples, insomniacs, nightmares, and crank callers. This was less a landscape of Hollywood fantasy cliches and something closer to the drosscape of our collective unconscious. Here is what we all imagine together when we thing of the small hours of the night. I would have liked to have stayed all night, but again, I was very aware of my own time - I had agreed to chaperon my nephew's bowling party the next morning. As I was taken up watching time pass, I was also very aware of the sleep I was missing. As I watched insomniacs toss and turn I was imagining my sleep-deprived self trying to keep up with a dozen screaming tweens. 
Big Lebowski (1998) Christian Marclay, 2,228 Records (2009)

It is a very rare coincidence that you watch a film at the same time of day that that film is taking place. As it turns out it is so much more compelling than watching a film the year being aligned. Watching 2001 in 2001, or 2010 in 2010 was no different that watching the films in 1984. You are aware of what the filmakers imagined the future would be like in 1968, and 1984, but nothing more. Watching Oliver Stone's World Trade Center on September 11th was particularly sad, but not revelatory. To see Cary Grant look at his watch in 1959 and realize that you too have to be somewhere right now in 2011 on the other hand, is unlike anything else I have ever experienced. To have this happen over and over, to have the moment of 1:15 from 1920, followed by a moment from 1968, and a moment from 2010, all collapsed into that exact moment within my own afternoon was simultaneously locating and dislocating. It was the chronological equivalent of watching two girls, seated 20 feet from one another, wish one another a good bye. 
Caged Time Bandits; Christian Marclay, Festival (2010)

Clock is an experience of time as both “hole” and the “thing it is not.” It did not simply present a helter skelter, back and fourth survey of the last century of cinematic clock appearances, it pushing me through the chronological moments of a my own day. At the very end of my all time favorite Smithson essay, Towards The Development of An Air Terminal Site, the artist proposes is something he called Site Selection Study. It came to mind while I was watching Clock the second time: 
The investigation of a specific site is a matter of extracting concepts out of existing sense-data through direct perceptions. Perception is prior to conception, when it comes to site selection or definition. One does not impose, but rather expose the site - be it interior or exterior. Interiors may be treated as exteriors or vice versa. The unknown areas of sites can best be explored by artists.
The specific site Marclay is investigating is time. The existing sense-data he is boring into is our shared heritage of film images - and our own personal sense of time of day is what he is using to expose the site.
Time Bandits, Map of Time (1981), Smithson, Map of Broken Glass (1969)


  1. This critique is insightful on many levels - it manages to subvert a difficult idea (the hole!) into what feels like a logical conclusion. The personal experience of the installation gives the essay nice pacing (complimenting the piece itself) and projects enough signal to be able to comprehend the installation without having been there.
    ... and always a treat to see Laibach mentioned in art criticism!

  2. Thanks emunit. It is a strange and slippery idea and I did my best to bring it around. Glad to know there are other Laibach fans out there. What a weird band.

  3. I can only hope Christian Marclay reads this and sees my posting of a Google image search for Flava Flav. He just may feel it is worth doing another time piece but with Mr Flav in mind.Get it? Time piece? I would suggest to Mr Marclay he consider having the clock run backwards - a kind of origin story of Flava's time piece creation!

    I like the idea that time and entertainment are so heavily linked. I mean time is sort of linked to everything. However, in entertainment and cinema where boredom is the enemy, art is cool with being boring sometimes. i also think the notion of mechanical time keeping mechanisms operating in a system like digital video seems nice.

    I take it back. Flav's clock need not run backwards.