“The Clock” is an art installation that tells the time, literally. It’s a 24-hour montage of film and television fragments, thousands of them, that all feature timepieces. Time is told on wrists and radios, towers and dashboards, in shop windows and spaceships, in shouts and murmurs. Behold the cuckoo and the bomb, bearing the same message. The day-long video loop is synchronized to whichever time zone it’s being shown in; the film progresses in real time. During the flashback scene from “Casablanca” where Rick and Sam wait in the rain for Ilsa to show up so they can flee the Nazi occupation of Paris, there is a shot of a clock that reads 4:56. The audience sits on a sofa in a dark room watching that scene at exactly 4:56. You will not be late for your next appointment.
Christian Marclay, the work’s creator, is also a composer, pioneering turntablist, and sound collagist, which makes all kinds of sense. “The Clock” is a killer mixtape. It’s a feat of splicing-and-dicing derring-do. And it works on so many levels, from fizzy movie-trivia game to powerful reminder that time is the universal burden. It may be the one true universal. Whatever class, century, country, culture, or movie you happen to land in, time will find you and whip your ass. We fight it and we fail. Time is a magician; it slows to a crawl and it flies by in a blur, which is of course impossible because time is constant, but there it is. Time twists and contorts in mysterious step with our shifting states of perception, and nobody is immune. It’s sort of sickening but sort of comforting, too.
I spent an hour-and-a-half watching “The Clock” at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The first five minutes seemed to last forever. I was aware of the seconds ticking by. Then I became caught up in the miniature dramas unfolding onscreen as they do offscreen, on top of one another, a procession of bedtimes and train departures and rendezvous and waiting games. I lost track of time, even as it was marching by, in plain sight, right in front of me. Then it was time to go.