EXHIBITION: Passing Time  

Graham Hooper took time out during half-term, watching The Clock at the Tate Modern.

I’m queuing to watch a film. Nothing unusual there, except this film is 24 hours long. Yes, that’s right, a whole day and night of big screen action. I say action, it’s mainly people looking at their watch, or a clock. We’re in an art gallery and so this is not a Hollywood blockbuster at your local multiplex. Except sometimes it is. Parts of it anyway.

The artist is Christian Marclay, the gallery is Tate Modern, and the film is called “The Clock”.

The gallery assistant tells me that my wait shouldn’t be more than ten minutes, maybe less, it depends. It’s one in, one out, but people can leave when they want. The space must hold over a hundred viewers and it’s always full. Unbelievably, Christian Marclay has found footage of every minute of the day and night and made a 24-hour video montage, using television and film clips. It cost him $100,000 to make and taken him and his team of six 3 years to put together. Not every clip includes a visual reference to a clock or watch; some have a spoken connection, announcing the time in dialogue, for instance. It’s synchronised with real time, so the time shown is the actual time.

It’s late afternoon judging by how my stomach is rumbling. Without looking at my ‘phone I’m guessing it’s maybe 5. I’m curious now so I take a look. Yes, I was nearly there, 5:05. That’s five past five in analogue-speak. Apparently we use our mobile phones for checking the time more than anything else. Just think, all that high-power functionality and without touching the screen we check the time rather than call, text, photograph or search. There are less watch owners than ever before it seems.

The queue shuffles forward. Now there are fewer in front than behind. Nearly there. I don’t mind queuing if the line moves along often enough to keep my hopes up. Especially if I’ve got no impatient kids in tow, and today I’m alone. Yes, the time is passing quickly really.

I’ve heard a lot about this video artwork. I’m intrigued. Such a strange project. Literally years of dedicated research has been committed to the cause. I’m happy to spend an hour of my life experiencing it for myself. Once inside, I quickly grab a seat. It’s not often that I watch a film part way through but I’m sure it won’t make too much difference today. There are people who have watched the entire show, starting at midnight and going right through, but surely with toilet breaks, even if you brought your own refreshments?

Each fragment can last anywhere for a few seconds to nearly a minute, or more. I quickly get into the idea, but this is more than just a piece of conceptual horseplay. If the thought of it is mesmerising for most, the actuality is more than the sum of its parts. Within minutes I am genuinely entertained, and increasingly intrigued too. Often there is a view of a time-keeping machine, followed by or following on from a reaction. We see fear, boredom and anxiety in no particular order, and repeatedly. The effect is hypnotic, for sure, and utterly engaging; engrossing actually. I recognise some films but most are clearly obscure; historic, foreign language curios. I am amused, shocked, intrigued and confounded throughout my visit, a 45- minute stint.

For those watching for continuous and extended periods of time strange happenings appear: actors, at various stages of their career, make multiple cameos. Flowers wither, cigarettes burn, candles burn down and of course clocks chime and alarms sound.

Three years editing with a team of six researchers, watching DVDs and copying scenes for later use have created six editions. It begins with people asleep or in late night bars, alone, perhaps dreaming. Then there’s commuting, as expected, during rush hour. By 6pm there are evening meals, and bizarrely shootouts, followed by parties, theatre shows. There’s a list of episodes used (www.letterboxd.com/thisisdrew/list/the-clock/) for those wishing to check if what they recognised was guessed right.

A spreadsheet allowed the team to carefully collate material for possible use, and eventually, once enough was gathered and sorted, begin work on transitions. Over time two computers were needed to garner enough storage and processing capacity to deal with the enormous amount of footage collected. Each hour became a chapter. The trick, or aim, as it emerged, was to balance the melodramatic with the inane. One researcher was dismissed for giving violent films too much weighting. Eventually individuals in the working group were assigned different genres to focus on. Sure enough, there are thrillers, westerns and even science fiction (films made in the past but set in the future, which might be around now, of course).

So this artwork functions as a timepiece, but also as an ingenious history of world cinema. For all its disjointed editing it maintains a kind of inherent flow as a visual and temporal journey. The final edit uses about 12,000 sections. Just a few minutes of viewing offers up pleasant surprises: changes in mood, setting and activity. But it’s so much more than that. Viewing this epic work makes me acutely aware of the tick-tock of my life. Being late, getting old, timetables and schedules, all become more concrete and tangible n this darkened room and that feels important and hugely valuable. Time is finite. I should use it wisely.

I have to leave no later that 5:45 to get the tube in time, to meet my daughter on time, to catch the coach promptly. No need to check my watch though, not that I wear one anymore. I still own a lovely watch, bought for me by my parents as a 21st birthday gift. Time is a gift, that’s why it’s called the present, I once read. But it began to slow up, or lose time, as we say. Slowly down the continuous, relentless flow of time might be something that at times we’ve wished for. Or the speeding up, during moments of utter drudgery; the last ten minutes of an exam, waiting for a bus at night in heavy rain.

In order to maintain perfect timing Marclay’s Clock continues even when the gallery or museum is closed. There is also the stipulation that exhibition spaces agree to open for 24 hours as some point during the run. A copy of The Clock costs $467,500 each, with the proviso that it is never shown in more than one institution simultaneously. The Tate owns a copy jointly with the Centre Pompidou in Paris and The Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

Due to copyright (as you’d perhaps imagine, a gnarly issue) visitors are not required to pay for entry. No royalties have ever been paid to the respective owners of the rights. Marclay judged that being respective to the original work, and indeed hoping that the resulting work would be good and interesting, his theoretically illegal use would be overlooked, or at least waivered. The work has been hugely successful, gaining a Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale in 2011, and attracting thousands of visitors each time it is shown.

After just a few minutes I’m actually losing track of time, if that’s possible. I’m certainly thinking I could sit here all day and watch. Zadie Smith has suggested this film might be the greatest film she has ever seen. Though it is of course many films, and in its entirety not one many will ever really see. Is it possible that any one, single human being would have all of every film used in the making of The Clock? Surely not.

This is not the first piece by Marclay that uses complex video editing techniques, nor focuses on cinema and its mechanics, and time as a theme. His 1995 ‘Telephones’ was made up entirely, as the name suggests, of Hollywood films clips featuring actors using the telephone, juxtaposing again the banal and the profound in comic and astounding ways.

Another precursor to Marclays work is a piece from 2003 by Chrstoph Girardet called “60 seconds” which used sixty unique clips from sixty different films each for a second to create and show a minute of cinema time. Another, “L’Horloge” (literally The Clock, in French) from 2005 by Parisian-based artist Étienne Chambaud, uses computer software to display the time using still images from various films. Using still images changes the mood and pace of the work, but again predates Marclays work by 5 years. It acts as a “slow motion flipbook” and sticks to film clips, each image held for a minute, rather than incorporating television excerpts as Marclay does.

The Clock remains on view, if you’re willing and able to queue, until 20th January next year, which, at the time of writing this is another 86 days. I’ll let you work out the seconds if you’re interested. Personally, I think life’s too short for that kind of endeavour frankly.