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Christian Marclay’s ‘The Clock’ Is a Sensation—And Nothing More

The Clock
Paula Cooper Gallery

One afternoon several months ago, I lingered on West 24th Street between 10th and 11th Avenues as a photographer shot two fashion models in haute punk outfits, with perilously spiky heels and raccoon-style eye makeup. Spring was at long last coming to the city, the final stubborn patches of filthy snow had melted away, and I was not the only person who stopped to watch as the photographer and his models spun their gritty-chic little Manhattan fantasy, the great-looking women vamping while an assistant adjusted a reflector and a stylist stood at the ready. This was a New York moment, with passersby entranced by an artful illusion—a stagey reconstruction of the already stagey downtown scene of the 1970s.

I record this here because the effect the street scene had on me—the little tickle or rush of pleasure the spectacle precipitated, the play of sensibilities it provoked—was no stronger and no weaker than the effect of some recent gallery exhibitions that I count as more or less successful. Art, some people say, is mostly an exercise in sensibility, or a crystallization of sensibility. This view has a distinguished pedigree, going back to ideas developed by the founding figures of modernity, especially Baudelaire and Pater. Discriminating dealers, collectors, curators, and critics are in good company when they become totally absorbed in the shifting sensations and changing perceptions produced by the spectacle of contemporary life. Although Baudelaire, in “The Painter of Modern Life,” in 1863, said there is “an eternal, invariable element” in beauty, he proceeded to devote one of his most extraordinary pieces of prose to the “relative, circumstantial element” in beauty, “which might be described as the amusing, enticing, appetizing icing on the divine cake.” A decade later, in the preface to The Renaissance, Pater echoed Baudelaire’s exploratory spirit, arguing that “a correct abstract definition of beauty” was less important than “a certain kind of temperament” and “a special, a unique, impression of pleasure.”

It is this mercurial, impressionistic side of the old modern sensibility that still animates many gallerygoers and museumgoers. And why not? You can have a pretty enjoyable time going from gallery to gallery if you approach everything—the fashion models on the street, the new art that the gallerists have on display—with a Baudelairean eye. I have no doubt that it was a taste for “the amusing, enticing, appetizing icing on the divine cake” that explains my fondness for a number of exhibitions in Chelsea in recent months—no matter that the divine part was nowhere to be found. Geoffrey Farmer, for an installation at Casey Kaplan in February, mounted odd bits and pieces of magazine illustrations on lengths of wire coat-hangers sticking out from the wall, and the effect was light and witty, with faces, body parts, and still life objects presented as if they were items of Surrealist laundry. There was a little more depth to Amy Granat’s film triptych, at Nicole Klagsbrun in April. I responded warmly to footage that had the wayward, hand-held charm of old-fashioned home movies, to the juxtaposition of surf pounding a rocky shore and moody, casually noirish vignettes of the Charles and Ray Eames house in Los Angeles. It all added up to an accidental romanticism, a pop plangency. At Farmer’s and Granat’s shows I was charmed, beguiled, even seduced, at least up to a point.

But how much of this kind of charm, beguilement, and seduction do I really want? I am intrigued by Farmer’s and Granat’s low-tech poetics, but I am left wondering how to reconcile—or if it is even possible to reconcile—my taste for their stylish allusions with my craving for art’s fundamental boldness. Could it be that their kind of work is so drenched in sensibility that what Baudelaire referred to as “the eternal and the immutable” in beauty has become irrelevant? For years now, neo-Baudelairean aestheticism—an attitude that is always attuned to slight shifts in sensibility but lacks Baudelaire’s developed feeling for the autonomous power of art—has been a fallback position among many intelligent gallerygoers. The exercise of sensibility becomes the only outlet an art lover any longer has, when contemporary art is almost entirely held hostage by market forces, the triumph of theory, and political correctness. By becoming a neo-Baudelairean aesthete, a gallerygoer may see a way beyond the worst excesses and follies of contemporary art. The danger is that the very people who still yearn for the particular sensations and freedoms that only art can provide run the risk of losing touch with art’s deepest power, because they are now all too immersed in shades of sensibility—in the gradations, ambiguities, and ironies of stylistic choice. The Baudelairean flâneur can become the flimflam flâneur. There are days when I can feel it happening to me.

WHAT IS GOING to become of the bluntness, the intransigence, and the absoluteness that are essential aspects of any work of art? The question demands an answer right now, when New York has been host to what has to be regarded as a masterpiece of extreme sensibility. Neo-Baudelaireanism had its epiphany in Christian Marclay’s The Clock, a twenty-four-hour-long video collaged from bits and pieces of movies that was shown at the Paula Cooper Gallery in January and February. The more refined a moviegoer’s sensibilities happened to be, the more there was to discover in The Clock. Never has such an orgy of moviemaking styles been gathered together in one place, ranging from Hollywood pop to European art house, with every shading of high and low, of sincerity, irony, and kitsch. The New York Times devoted several pieces to The Clock. Zadie Smith celebrated it in The New York Review of Books. And in Chelsea people waited hours to get in, even in the middle of the night when the show ran nonstop over the weekend. Since it closed in New York, The Clock has been acquired by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and been awarded the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale, the highest prize given to a single work of art.

The Clock
is a wonder, no question about it. Christian Marclay and six assistants have put together an intricate mosaic of fragments from hundreds of movies. Each fragment contains a clock or a watch or a mention of the time, and each fragment is precisely coordinated with the time in the gallery at the moment you are watching that scene. If you were in the Paula Cooper Gallery as noon approached, you found yourself watching scenes of actors discussing lunch or sitting down for lunch or eating lunch. The Clock reincarnates the old idea of the Family of Man, but with a winkingly ironic approach far removed from the middlebrow humanism of Edward Steichen’s mid-century show at the Museum of Modern Art. In The Clock, everybody, from the gunslinger out West to the kid growing up on a farm to the Parisian sophisticate, whether rich or poor, tragic or comic, bored or bewitched, is ruled by the same rhythms of morning, noon, and night. Marclay develops his theme with devilish intricacy and awesome technical panache. I was delighted with the hours that I saw and could have easily imagined spending twenty-four hours with The Clock.

Christian Marclay, who was born in 1955, has for years been a star on the international exhibition circuit, with work that mixes musical and visual art and at times involves old LPs (he is sometimes referred to as a “turntablist”), actors, musicians, video, and audience participation. Among the inventions in his retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art last summer was “Prêt-à-Porter,” in which he collected clothing decorated with musical notes. He hung the variegated garments on a rack, and two models were asked to dress in layers of clothing as they saw fit. Then musicians “played” the notes on the clothes as the models disrobed. In another piece, “Chalkboard,” this one made for the Whitney, museumgoers were invited to draw on an eighty-seven-foot-long chalkboard printed with musical staff lines, after which musicians performed what the public had inscribed. In Marclay’s work, confusions are provoked and then elegantly taxonomized, with controlled chaos often filtered through virtuoso performance of one sort or another. It is all very sly and sophisticated, reminiscent of escapades that some historians will trace back to the 1940s at Black Mountain College, when Abstract Expressionism was still young and Rauschenberg, Cage, and Cunningham were even younger.

Almost everybody who has written about The Clock has commented on the ingenuity with which the music flows through this monumental patchwork, with Marclay using subtle sonic adjustments to bring his brief film clips together. Gathered together in the cocoon-like viewing room constructed for the occasion, gallerygoers experienced what amounted to a speeded-up reenactment of our moviegoing past, with some television thrown in for good measure. Marclay provides a rich tapestry of black-and-white and color films and every imaginable style of cinematography. It is always a pleasure to ogle movie stars, and in The Clock they include Bette Davis, Audrey Hepburn, Laurence Olivier, Gary Cooper, Katharine Hepburn, all the men who have played James Bond, and just about every other film legend you can think of. The clips may be too brief to allow us to study their acting styles, but their faces and their “moves” are enough to keep us interested. And the virtuosity of The Clock’s organization, with clips from more than eighty years of moviegoing synchronized so that the moment in the movie is perfectly coordinated with the moment in the day when we are watching the moment in the movie, turns the movie past into a perpetual present. This may sound tiresome in the description, but it has a compelling rhythm, as the minutes move toward the half-hour or the hour and we realize the extent to which the striking of the hour is always a privileged moment. If movies are about taking us out of real time into fantasy time, The Clock is moviemaking in reverse, with de-naturalized movie time becoming re-naturalized, and turned into real time—into our time.

I ENJOYED THE CLOCK. I admired The Clock. The Clock is a magnificent artifice. But it left me wondering whether a magnificent artifice is a considerable work of art, or a work of art at all. “Guilty pleasure” is what I wrote on my notepad as I happily sat in the dark at the Paula Cooper Gallery. The Clock invites us to revel in our knowingness, in our knowledge of movie history and our pride in our movie sensibilities. We watch as the fracturing, juxtaposing, and collaging of cinema moments progresses. We wonder what Marclay is going to turn up with next. We smile at his ingenuity. And we compliment ourselves on our ability to appreciate his ingenuity.

Marclay has pulled off an extraordinary stunt—his piece is a sensation. The trouble is that the immodesty of The Clock, the aura of epic achievement that swirls around the whole endeavor, runs up against the strange fact that Marclay has in fact created nothing. If there is a modern work that The Clock brings to mind, it is Ulysses, another twenty-four-hour saga that involves a juxtaposition of sections presented in radically different styles. The difference is that Joyce himself created his Dublin day, moment by moment, word by word. The comparison is revealing. Joyce’s virtuosic imitations and parodies of the history of literature have often seemed somewhat strained, even to his greatest admirers. Ulysses finally owes its greatness to the force of the characters who move through the novel, the irrevocable narrative logic of fiction, the bold personalities who trump the refinements of the design. The Clock, by contrast, is all lacework, intricate contrivance, a marvel of design, except that the scaffolding—the minutes and hours of the very day we are watching the movie—lacks the element of imaginative necessity without which art does not exist. Art, strange to say, is blunter, maybe even dumber, and certainly bigger, than Christian Marclay imagines it to be.

The Clock
is too interesting, too beguiling, too much an affair of charm and fascination. I will not bother arguing with the shopworn proposition that art is anything anybody says it is. But I do believe that Marclay, who is so worried about keeping us interested, may well be uncomfortable with the extent to which artists, in accepting the principles of their craft, must risk being uninteresting. The essential operations of art can be almost banal. There is something downright unimaginative about the way that the greatest portraitists, such as Titian and Rembrandt, time and again set a figure right in the middle of a canvas. In doing so, they are bowing to a power—to an imperative—greater than themselves, or so one feels. Art does not necessarily thrive on an endless succession of subtle distinctions. Artifice may be art’s undoing.

When Baudelaire and Pater celebrated the relative, the circumstantial, the unique impression, they were in revolt against the academics, who wanted to codify and thereby rationalize art’s fundamentals, whether the rectangle of the canvas or the fourteen lines of the sonnet—but the academics were not wrong in wanting to enshrine what Baudelaire himself called the “eternal” aspect of art. By now the relativism of modern sensibilities has become a way of evading art’s intractable, immovable core. When Baudelaire declared that fashion is “a symptom of the taste for the ideal,” he may have been justified in setting out to shock the academics, but what needs to be pointed out now is that art, I mean real art, is not a symptom of anything. Art can certainly be fashionable, and fashion often mimics the effects of art, but the two really have very little to do with one another. If art can absorb fashion and become fashion, it is because art stands entirely apart from fashion.

There was a good deal of conversation this spring about a fashion-forward group show called “Unpainted Paintings,” at Luxembourg & Dayan, a relatively new gallery on the Upper East Side. Organized by Alison Gingeras, chief curator at the Palazzo Grassi, this was an exhibition perfectly suited to our dandyish moment. Here was half a century and more of painters who somehow attempt to confound the rules of painting, whether by presenting unstretched fabrics of one sort or another or by working on stretched canvas with unconventional materials. Among the works on display were one of Warhol’s oxidation paintings, with patterns made by urinating on metallic pigments, and one of Fontana’s compositions with holes pierced in the canvas. Canvas or cloth had been colored, burnt, and dyed (with Kool-Aid, among other things); the materials employed included string, cardboard, carpeting, clay, torn posters, salt, gold leaf, silver foil, plaster, wire mesh, and what was identified as “beach garbage.” Many of the paintings were records of processes or actions; they were after-images. And many of the effects were weird, lovely, strange, or unexpected. Here was a grab bag of sensibilities and sensations. I was not untouched by the aplomb of “Unpainted Paintings,” mounted in an intimate, freshly renovated townhouse, so that it felt like a particularly elegant spread in a shelter magazine. Everything was about the isolation of effects, the impact of singular qualities and quantities. The show was perfectly enjoyable as a catalogue of visual novelties.

I certainly enjoyed Amy Granat’s movie trilogy at Nicole Klagsbrun, with its nerd-grunge romantic response to the Eames House in Los Angeles. And The Clock is something to see, no question about it. If you take an interest in the passing parade—and who doesn’t?—you cannot help but be interested in such happenings: they are part of the urban spectacle. The distressed fabrics hanging at Luxembourg & Dayan are the most rarefied of found objects. Granat, after traveling west, came back to show her home movies of rocky beaches and legendary modernist homes in a suave Chelsea gallery. As for the crowds shivering on West 21st Street outside the Paula Cooper Gallery as they waited to get in to see The Clock, they were there to re-live their lives as moviegoers while the moments ticked by. All these experiences are worth something. So was my encounter with the fashion models and photographers on West 24th Street. Taken together, such experiences may suggest that what we call art involves an isolation, or a heightening, of experiences that we know from daily life. I suppose this is true, up to a point. But it is also utterly false, a complete misunderstanding of the nature of art, because although we bring a great deal of our experience of life to our experience of art, art finally holds us because it eludes mere sensibility, mere sensation.

There is a recalcitrance, an unlikeableness, an imperiousness, about art, and that is what really counts. The artist is absorbed by forms that are archetypal, elemental, totemic. Compared with the shivers and thrills of an amusing afternoon in Chelsea, a masterpiece in a museum, or any first-rate contemporary painting, may strike us as disengaged, charmless, even inert. The deep power of art—the power that all artists grapple with, the merely excellent ones as well as the truly great ones—is shockingly simple, almost simple-minded, though it is never simplistic. Artists wrest fresh feelings from forms that have an ancient, inviolate power. If artists are lucky, the old forms lend that inviolate power to their own fresh feelings. An event that makes love to the audience as ardently as The Clock is too unsettled to settle down in one’s imagination. Created by squeezing out the contents of one man’s movie-soaked imagination, The Clock is absorbed like a sponge by everybody who sees it. Once you leave the gallery, there is nothing left. “In relation to genius,” Baudelaire wrote of Delacroix, whom he revered, “the public is like a slow-running clock.” At Christian Marclay’s The Clock, the public never loses a second.

Jed Perl is the art critic for
The New Republic. This article originally ran in the July 14, 2011, issue of the magazine.