The Clock is a bizarre, brilliant piece of video art that’s already travelled from London to New York and back since its completion in 2010. And yet it feels like it’s found its home in the Tate Modern’s Blavatnik wing, with its focus on video and performance.
It’s an astonishing 24-hour montage of clips from movies spanning the last 100 years, taking a team of researchers more than three years to compile. Each clip, lasting anywhere from a couple of seconds to a minute, features a depiction of a clock, or a reference to time. Crucially, the time on-screen is the same as the time in real-life. So if you arrive in the purpose-built cinema, decked out with 50 Ikea sofas, at 8.55am, you’ll see clips of people glancing at their wrist-watch as they arrive at work, or listening to the radio as they eat breakfast.
By midday people are getting ready for lunch, or panicking after sleeping in, or holding shoot-outs under the blazing sun. At 12.05, Richard Gere scoops up the remnants of last night’s cocaine as he picks out a power suit; soon after two Chinese men silently eat bowls of noodles. Watch at midnight – as you’ll be able to do at special overnight screenings – and things will presumably get a little raunchier.
Watching the minutes flow in real-time is strangely compelling, tapping into something deeply human. The irony, of course, is that by putting these clips in chronological order, we end up leaping from decade to decade every few seconds, from Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet to Ricky Gervais’ David Brent.
Rather than just smashing the clips together, filmmaker Christian Marclay skilfully edits them, creating the illusion of narrative – shots of a plate will be followed by a someone eating. It feels authored, like a singular work.
The constant checking of time also creates a tension that’s never broken, a pregnant pause that never ends – we’re forever waiting for some relief, some pay-off, but all we get is more waiting, more wondering. As metaphors for life go, it’s pretty spot-on. Occasionally characters will underscore this: Colin Firth laments getting old in A Single Man; a boy in a film I’ve never seen smashes a clock and yells “don’t you realise you’re going to die?”
At it’s heart, The Clock is a tribute to our obsession with time and the instruments we painstakingly create to measure it. It’s a surreal, meditative experience, an affirmation that we all share the same horological prison cell, watching the seconds tick by until time finally runs out.