Early Riser: A Perspective on Marclay’s The Clock

The Polygon Gallery

July 5- September 15, 2019

Admission by donation

Christian Marclay The Clock 2010 (high res) 2
Christian Marclay, The Clock, 2010, single-channel video installation, duration: 24 hours, © the artist. Photo © White Cube (Ben Westoby)

By EA Douglas

It is just after 5:30 a.m. as I descend my front steps, the sun is rising but the sky is a cool ceiling of gray. I am on my way to The Polygon Gallery’s inaugural overnight viewing of The Clock by Christian Marclay.

I first learned of this piece reading Sarah Thornton’s 33 Artists In 3 Acts in the bathtub back in 2017 when as a form of self-care, I took to submerging myself in hot water as well as the contemporary art world. The Clock is essentially a twenty-four-hour film montage about time. It’s composed of thousands of clips taken from years of T.V. and movies and is synced to the local time of where it is playing. As each minute of the film progresses, the audience watches the people on the screen check their clocks in one continuous loop. Although I’m not a cinema buff, an audio-visual collage of this size is fascinating to me. Seemingly, others feel the same way too, as The Clock has been well received in the art world, being described as “one of the first masterpieces of the 21st Century,”[1]  Unfortunately, in this age of online streaming, there are only 6 copies of the film available for viewing. Fortunately for me, the National Gallery of Canada and Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts acquired a copy in 2011 and it is playing at The Polygon Gallery all summer long.

As I enter the glass underbelly of the building on North Vancouver’s waterfront, the employee behind the desk throws up his hands and welcomes, “Go on up!” There are a few pieces of trampled popcorn on the stairs from the previous evening’s art party. I am not one for the crowds that go along with show openings, especially now that social media has made viewing art so trendy. Although you’re not allowed to take pictures or record while watching the film, you can still scroll #theclock. Since the viewing is going all night, I am skirting the masses by getting up early on a Saturday morning. It has paid off, as I get into the exhibition-space-turned-cinema there are only a handful of others lounging on the low IKEA couches.

Christian Marclay The Clock 2010 (high res) 6
Christian Marclay, The Clock, 2010, single-channel video installation, duration: 24 hours, © the artist. Photo © White Cube (Ben Westoby)

Quietly settling in, the atmosphere feels akin to that of an airport waiting area, but on the screen above me, Kirsten Dunst awakes in a field. The time is now 6:06 a.m. and the film portrays an early morning. The scenes flicker by, actors I do and do not recognize open their eyes, pull up the blinds, put on their slippers and their robes. Some lay awake through ominous ticking, the familiar wide eye of those who long for sleep. In most shots, I can pick out a clock or a watch, either on the wall, the desk, an arm— it becomes a game of eye-spy for the recurring object linking everything together. But at times it is more subtle, the golden glow of early dawn illuminates the aftermath of a wild night, with characters clearly out of sync of the circadian rhythm. As the minutes pile on, I am amused by the abundance of travel alarm clocks, as in my life they’ve been replaced by cellphones, although cells themselves, do not make much of an appearance.

I also begin to notice the women in these scenes; the roles they play and the patterns that emerge. There are those who are awoken in some dramatic way and those who sleep on, completely unaware that they were being watched. Or, the ones who can’t sleep, but instead stare blankly into the air above them as a man in their arms snoozes on oblivious. There are the women who jump up suddenly, leaving a man coiled in sheets, or the women who enter rooms peacefully, to wake a man or small children.

In all circumstances, there are similarities in how women are represented. Perfectly coiffed hair, with not a bang out of place. Dressed in sateen, satin and lace nightgowns, with the floral detailed embroidery or wide flowing sleeves. Their necks, wrists, and ears adorned in jewelry, finely-manicured fingers rocking rings of significant size. Even the ugly sleepers, the women in curlers snoring loudly, are spotless. There is no drool, no rheum (the technical term for eye gunk). It is a picture-perfect depiction.

Christian Marclay The Clock 2010 (high res) 4
Christian Marclay, The Clock, 2010, single-channel video installation, duration: 24 hours, © the artist. Photo © White Cube (Ben Westoby)

Then there are the women in the background, the domestic workers, the servants. They are the ones cooking, cleaning, or making beds. These women are not characters, they are only props in other people’s stories. This feeling is best summarized in one quick scene of a business-type fellow passed out in a bar’s booth, the viewer sees the body of a headless cleaning lady, her chunky, ergonomic shoes behind the vacuum, an apron protecting her dress, as she moves into frame. Even as she collects the dirty glass from his hand, there’s no glimpse of her face.

These portrayals of women are not unexpected, but they leave me downhearted. Looking past the stereotypes and unrealistic beauty standards, there is a severe lack of the LGBTQ+ community, a shortage of people of colour, an absence in the scenes to make them look like real life. Here’s what’s described as one of the first masterpieces the 21st Century and I don’t see myself in it, but Sir Michael Caine is there thrice.

The completist in me wants to see the whole thing before I form an opinion, wants to judge based on the entirety of the work. Due to the nature of this piece that’s impossible, even when I am distracted by the person waking up on the couch directly in front of me—they were there the whole time, asleep out of my sightline —I miss part of the action. While the representation does feel insufficient in the single hour of The Clock that I see, I must also acknowledge the limitations of the materials Marclay is working with. It’s only quite recently that there has been a push for more diverse characters on our TV sets and in our movie theatres.

Christian Marclay The Clock 2010 (high res) 3
Christian Marclay, The Clock, 2010, single-channel video installation, duration: 24 hours, © the artist. Photo © White Cube (Ben Westoby)

Letting go of my awareness, I am pleasantly surprised to notice myself becoming immersed in the work. I realize I am introducing a narrative overtop of the scenes. As I watch, the protagonist and antagonist metamorphize. Their faces age and change shape, their bodies evolve through gender, clothing, posture. It continues as the clips switch from colour to black and white, English to foreign language. The ability to do this, to make me construct an inner storyline, is the art of the piece. It allows me to forget any physical manifestation of character and see only human interactions. This must be chalked up to Marclay’s editing, which he focused on for the majority of the three years it took to make this film, hiring out the video watching to assistants. Prior to the viewing, when I considered a montage of film clips I expected something similar to a Vine compilation video, however, this is so not the case. It is thoroughly enjoyable to watch and not a moment of what I see is choppy. The flow is subtle but astounding. 

As 7 a.m. rolls around, the audience is cajoled by a chorus of coo-coo clocks and I feel ready to restart my day. For the rest of the morning, I am hyper-aware of the time. As I observe someone wearing a watch on the bus home, I think to myself with a laugh that The Clock may not be this summer’s biggest blockbuster, but it is still a marvel to behold.

[1] Luke, Ben. The Art Newspaper Podcast: “Van Gogh in the Asylum. Plus Christian Marclay on The Clock.” Produced by Julia Michalska, David Clack and Aimee Dawson. Aired September 13, 2018, 48 min. https://www.theartnewspaper.com/podcast/van-gogh-in-the-asylum-plus-christian-marclay-on-the-clock



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