The Clock, by Christian Marclay, is a unique work of art, twelve thousand clips spliced together in twenty four hours of film from silent movies to 21st century blockbusters, from crowd-pleasers to art house and cult films, with stars and jobbing actors. In each clip, the time is shown, either because there is a clock somewhere on the set, or someone says what the time is, or looks at their watch. Write-ups say that it is accurate to the second, though when the hour is struck it strikes several times- wonderfully dramatically at midnight.
Would you want to watch a clock? asked someone dismissively. If it were nothing but clocks it would be beautiful- art-deco clocks and basic digital alarm clocks, elaborate silver watches with pictures inside, held with love or admiration, and grandfather clocks used as hiding places. But often the clock is merely part of the set, and spotting the clock in some clips becomes one of the many games you can play, on a comfortable couch, before a large screen at Tate Modern. It has three public showings of the whole thing this year, open overnight on Saturday 6 October, Saturday 3 November and Saturday 1 December. I went on 6 October at 8pm, and stayed until ten the following day when I wandered out for breakfast in the members’ room, looking out over the Thames.
Between six and eight there are lots of shots of alarm clocks going off and people getting up, showering, breakfasting, going to the factory or the office, or to rob a bank. It is so normal, or a cinematic view of that normal which drama or story twists or breaks. As with real life, people are still rising from sleep after nine, kindly allowed to lie in. In the evening there are far more people at home, even in bed before nine for sleep rather than sex, than in night clubs and places of entertainment, but dance halls rarely have prominent clocks.
Thousands of clips average seven seconds each, but they are much longer or shorter. A man hits Tom Cruise, ineffectually, twice before the Cruise character keeps cool- he gives his wine-glass for someone to hold- and deals out the old right hook. That was the first clip I saw, wandering in with no idea of what the exhibit was, thinking it might even be a huge digital clock resembling its advertising. I needed to read more before warming to it, as I do not much like films where a smooth hero is unstoppable, entering the guarded citadel killing dozens of useless guards whose machineguns never strike home- but the Clock has all kinds of films. I decided that such a huge, amazing art work deserved my sustained attention, possibly to watch the whole thing before it ends on 20 January. That would mean doing another all-nighter, as I put my head down for half an hour at one point and probably dropped off quite a bit; but the film energised me, and I was often grinning or open-mouthed at its beauty and creativity.
Marty McFly goes back to the future, and Terry Malloy goes back to work on the waterfront, with Johnny Friendly defeated and Leonard Bernstein swelling. There are clips from The Time Machine and Clockwise, but most of the films I don’t recognise, with shots of someone crossing a room or walking down a street. Then I see thousands of rooms, so many details of ornament, furnishing or decoration, clothes and hairstyles and faces. There are lots of phone calls, sometimes from different films spliced together, and someone from the thirties will look down at their watch then immediately after we see a Casio digital.
In the queue we met Grace, smiling, clearly keen to chat. She had flown over from the US to see her daughter, who was one of the research assistant watching thousands of films to catalogue possible clips. She told us individual frames could be dropped to keep the seconds quite accurate. At two am the queue wound down the stairs. At nine, before the main gallery opened, most of the couches had one or two people, some exhausted but others sat upright, engrossed.
There is little wildlife, though there is a scurrying rat and a few birds. Most is in English, though there is a little in French or German. I was there overnight, so saw lots of rumpled sheets as people could not sleep, and the nightmare as someone’s life broke down. What next? Was he crushed, or did he overcome? I don’t know, for life is not a drama.