It’s About Time

The huge success of ‘The Clock’ brings new attention to other parts of Christian Marclay’s career

Christian Marclay (right) performing with Otomo Yoshihide at the Japan Society in New York.


For hours, crowds stood on line in London and New York, Venice and Yokohama, Los Angeles and Sydney, waiting to see Christian Marclay’s single-channel video The Clock (2010). They brought sleeping bags and snuck in refreshments to museums and galleries, prepared to spend up to 24 hours to take in the full-length version of the work. Rarely glancing at cell phones or their wrists to figure out how much time they had spent in the screening rooms, the visitors became fully absorbed in the work, which nonetheless reminded them of the time, every second of viewing time. This summer, from mid-July to early August, they can continue to experience it 24 hours a day, for free, at Lincoln Center in New York.

The Clock is, in fact, a clock—of sorts. Created from tens of thousands of film clips, each depicting a representation of a moment of time, The Clock is sequenced and synchronized to real time, minute by minute, sometimes second by second. From Harold Lloyd’s famous scene in which he swings from a clock tower to Christopher Walken’s handing over a POW’s timepiece in Pulp Fiction, Marclay scoured video-store archives to fill a full day with sights and sounds, all referencing time. And what did the artist, a master of remix in sound and video, discover? That bombs go off at noon, children flee school at 3 p.m., workers clock out at 5, lovers meet from 6 to 7. What The Clock does is survey the narratives that make up classic cinema, rather than merely reduce its source material to clips of clocks.

First shown at London’s White Cube gallery in October 2010, and then at New York’s Paula Cooper Gallery in January 2011, The Clock has been entering major private and public collections. The $550,000 work has been promised to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, as a gift from collectors Jill and Peter Kraus, and it has been acquired by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Kunsthaus Zurich. It was purchased jointly by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the National Gallery of Canada; and, also jointly, by the Israel Museum, the Pompidou Center, and Tate Modern. Marclay is currently represented by White Cube and Paula Cooper.

Summarizing his life, the 57-year-old artist says simply: “I was born in California, grew up in Switzerland; my father was Swiss, my mother American. I grew up speaking mostly French, and I had to learn English later.” He jokes, playing off the stereotype of Swiss watchmakers, “I don’t want to be known as the clockmaker.” Over espresso at a café in the West Village, he discusses how he began his career in the early 1980s as an experimental DJ, and goes on to explain how The Clock has taken over his life. It took three years to make the work, which often required ten or more hours a day of editing, and he has spent the past year ensuring that it will be installed properly in any venue offering to exhibit it. Buyers must sign an extensive contract to acquire the work. “We get every week at least two serious requests to show it. It’s booked for the next two years,” he says, admittedly surprised by the response. “I knew The Clock would be a project that people would like. People love movies, and the theme of time is something everybody’s obsessed with. But I never imagined it would have this kind of success.”

He got the idea for the piece while working on a video score, titled Screen Play. It was made in 2005 and performed in various international locations. The “score” for the musicians on stage consisted of video clips from movies, including images of clocks to help them keep time. “The Clock has already been seen by thousands of people,” says Marclay, who made Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people of 2011.

“It happens rarely as a curator in contemporary art that you feel that you get the chills and have your hair blown back by a particular work,” says Jen Mergel, curator at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, who was responsible for the acquisition of the work by the museum. “I had known Christian Marclay for a number of years and I followed his career but had not had the expectation of the power of that piece.” As a condition of acquiring it, the museum built a special viewing room, separate and apart from its auditorium, that would allow for a free flow of traffic through the installation. “It’s a tricky piece because people think a theater would be the perfect space for it,” says Marclay. “But they don’t realize that The Clock is not a film where everyone walks in together, sits there for two or three hours, and then they all leave together. The Clock goes on and on forever, and you walk in whenever you have time, and you need a space that accommodates this kind of movement and this circulation.” Mergel is more than satisfied with the accommodations the museum made for the installation: “It is a piece that, regardless of one’s knowledge of Marclay or one’s familiarity with contemporary art in general, can engage visitors across the spectrum.”

Although he has had a strong career for over two decades, Marclay finds this type of widespread success curious in light of the offbeat and off-the-beaten-path venues where he performed at his start. He spent two years at the École Supérieure d’Art Visuel in Geneva, before transferring to the Massachusetts College of Art in 1977. In 1978, he went to New York to study at Cooper Union for a semester and wound up staying a year in the city, frequenting downtown music venues like the Mudd Club and CBGBs. At his parents’ insistence, he returned to Boston to finish his degree. But the effect of his time in New York was evident. He organized a performance festival during his senior year with a focus on music and started a two-man band, the Bachelors, Even, named for Duchamp’s famous Large Glass. The music the duo made was as informed by Minimalist art as it was by punk rock and performers like Laurie Anderson, Vito Acconci, and John Cage.

“Performance was kind of a new thing, and I thought, Why make things when I can do this stuff?” says Marclay, whose earliest efforts involved taping the sounds emitted by damaged records and playing them back in rhythmic loops. He then began making sounds with records on turntables, sampling various tracks and emphasizing the noises made by scratching a needle on the record’s surface. When Marclay moved back to New York in 1980, he was hired by John Zorn to participate in the composer’s improvisatory musical works. “Suddenly I was paying my rent with performing, but I never felt like a musician,” says Marclay. “I didn’t have that confidence in my ears the way I have confidence in my eyes. It took me years to realize I can do things with sound as well as visual art, but at some point, there was no need to make a distinction between the two.”

Throughout the 1980s, Marclay increasingly combined music and visuals, both for performances using “found sound” as a kind of readymade and to make sculptures from records, album covers, and cassette tapes. For example, his Endless Column (1988) is a towering stack of vinyl records that, if disassembled, would offer the possibility of many hours of music. The Sound of Silence (1988) is simply a photograph of the single “Sounds of Silence” by Simon & Garfunkel, evoking the haunting melody even as it remains nothing more than a picture on the wall. A collage of album covers titled Guitar Neck (1992) set a then–record price of $266,500 for a Marclay work, at Christie’s last year. Ironically, few of the pieces from this period made a sound. One exception is Tape Fall (1989), first installed at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, in which a reel-to-reel tape recorder is installed at the top of a ladder near the ceiling, playing the sounds of trickling water. Without a pickup reel, the tape spills to the floor, accumulating into a big puddle. The installation must be constantly replenished with new reels of tape.

“If you knew nothing about Christian in that period and you were told that all his work relates to music and sound, it would be easy to pigeonhole him as a niche artist,” says Russell Ferguson, adjunct curator at the Hammer Museum in L.A., who curated a retrospective of Marclay’s work there in 2003. “But I always thought that he jumped off from this starting point of music to the visual and that led into a deeper set of ramifications.”

Still interested in sound, Marclay made his first video works in the 1990s, using an editing style that is dominant in The Clock. In Telephones (1995), he strung together short clips from Hollywood movies, each featuring an actor on the telephone, and in doing so, created a kind of single narrative from diverse sources. In Up and Out (1998), Marclay merged two separate, preexisting films—a soundless version of Michelangelo Antonioni’s film Blow-Up (1966) and the soundtrack from Brian De Palma’s Blow Out (1981)—synthesizing them into one suspenseful exercise. “I’m interested in film because of my interest in collage and putting existing things together,” says Marclay. “For me, it’s a way to remix things we are all familiar with that are part of our culture, and that memory and recognition is really important.”

While Marclay was showing at international venues throughout the 1990s, he experienced a very productive period during a 1999 residency at Artpace, the nonprofit contemporary-art center in San Antonio. There he created two projects. First, he initiated his “Sounds of Christmas” program, collecting more than 1,200 albums of Christmas music—with performers ranging from the Vienna Boys Choir to Dean Martin—to be made available to local DJs to sample at holiday time. (Marclay has since re-created the program annually at different venues, including Tate Modern in 2004.)

He also made a video, Guitar Drag (2000). In this work, we see a Fender Stratocaster on the ground attached to amplifiers that are nestled in the back of a pickup truck. As the truck drives through the hilly landscape, the guitar practically screams in pain as it is dragged along. “Guitar Drag is a very simple piece in some ways, but in other ways it is very complex,” observes Ferguson. On one level, Marclay is incorporating musical references, such as noise music and the tradition of rock-and-roll stars breaking their guitars. But the work also has a deeper political component, referring specifically to a lynching incident in Texas, in which an African American man was dragged to his death by a pickup truck. “You can feel the kind of anguish and destruction even without that information,” Ferguson says. “But when you know it, you can relate it to a song like Billy Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit,’ as a response to a horrific, racially based incident.”

“From very early on, if you look at Marclay’s video work, there’s always been a reference to the idea of sound,” points out Benjamin Weil, chief curator at Fundación La LABoral Centro de Arte y Creación Industrial in Gijón, Spain, who commissioned Marclay’s work Video Quartet for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, in 2002. With simultaneous projections of four screens, Video Quartet is a 13-minute-long compilation of cinematic scenes emphasizing sound, including Jack Nicholson playing the piano in Five Easy Pieces, Meryl Streep on the violin, and Ella Fitzgerald singing—sampled and assembled into an original musical composition.
Weil made the work possible by helping Marclay get access to Final Cut Pro software, then new to the field and much more economical to use than the Avid editing machine Marclay had been working with. Still, it took a year to make the work. “It’s a composition in a musical sense, but it is also a narrative informed by sound,” says Weil. “He is not composing sound apart from the image. He is composing with image and sound at the same time.”

‘The difference between mixing sound and mixing images is that sound is so much more abstract,” says Marclay. “If you take a record and slow it down, you might not be able to recognize it. But if you take a film and do the same treatment, you will still recognize it.” Certainly, one of the pleasures of watching Marclay’s video works is that they turn every viewer into a film buff, privately reeling off the names of the actors and movies they spot in each scene. But what’s more subtle is the way he incorporates the soundtracks that he uses as background to hold together disparate scenes.

While Marclay worries that his career will be overshadowed by the success of The Clock, there is still great interest in his innovations in performance. In 2010, the Whitney Museum in New York presented “Christian Marclay: Festival,” a survey of the artist’s inroads into music, which featured live performances. “If I were to pinpoint the exact moment that initiated the process of bringing this exhibition to fruition, it would be the acquisition of the artist’s graphic score Graffiti Composition,” says Whitney curator David Kiehl, referring to a project undertaken from 1996 to 2002, in which Marclay papered the streets of Berlin with 5,000 sheets of blank staff paper, used for musical notation. The doodles and notes drawn in by pedestrians form the basis of the performance, which has been reinterpreted on several occasions by different teams of musicians. Kiehl hoped the show would highlight “a relatively underrecognized dimension of the artist’s work, one that stresses process over product and participation over spectatorship.”

Indeed, Marclay, who now lives in London with his wife, curator Lydia Yee, was back in New York in November 2011 for a live performance at the Japan Society, in a show titled “Turntable Duo,” where he shared the stage with Otomo Yoshihide, with whom he has performed since the 1980s. Marclay is an intense performer, though hardly an exhibitionist. Here he quietly reached for records while manipulating two turntables. In this instance, the sounds were muted and atonal, difficult to follow as he rapidly altered rhythms and scores.

“I don’t know if he is the greatest artist, but I do think he is the greatest remixer to remix and sample,” says Sabine Breitwieser, chief curator of media and performance art at MoMA.

For Marclay, working in this fashion is natural. “To me, it’s part of my life. It’s like the air we breathe. It’s part of our culture. It’s our references,” he explains. “We are the generation who grew up watching films. I was visiting a friend who had a toddler. He could use the iPhone in a most instinctive way. I mean, what kind of visual culture will these kids generate?”

Barbara Pollack is a contributing editor of ARTnews.

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