Tick-Tock. Tick-Tock. Tick-Tock.

“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.

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  1. Claire
    Posted December 8, 2011 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    While watching “The Clock” (for around an hour), I had two things happen. At first, I’d recognize (or wonder about) the films the scenes came from; some I know I’ve seen, some I know I haven’t, and some just seem so familiar that I can’t be sure. But within each clip, there’s a bit of a story, whether you can connect it to its original context or not. But after watching for a while, you start trying to construct a larger narrative out of the scenes you’re seeing: Marclay keeps coming back to a basement with a guy tied up near a pile of explosives — is that important? How do the people in this scene relate to the people you just saw? Eventually, of course, you have to leave. Maybe you want to see some more of the museum, maybe you have somewhere else you need to be, maybe the museum is closing and they’re kicking you out. But you always wonder whether you’d have been able to put it all together if only you’d been able to see the whole thing.

    • joan
      Posted December 8, 2011 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

      That is wild, Claire. I wonder if there is a broader narrative built in to the collage. Makes me wish the MFA in Boston would do another 24-hour viewing like they did when it first opened.

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