Watching The Clock in the wee hours

• After a night of immersion in Christian Marclay’s masterwork The Clock, sneaking past a lone toiling cleaner into the next-door hotel’s empty, over-lit washrooms was like being in a film of my own

Punters kill time watching The Clock at White Cube, Masons Yard

• The idea of Christian Marclay’s 24-hour art film The Clock is simple: a montage of time pieces drawn from the history of cinema, shown in chronological order. There are at least 60 glimpses of the time in every hour, and  whatever time it is outside the art gallery, inside it Marclay’s film will be showing a movie representation of that exact minute – viewers need never consult their watches, because someone on celluloid will soon be displaying theirs. This may suggest a schematic treatment featuring one time piece per minute, every minute, on the minute, but it’s far more subtle than that. Marclay is famed for his work with sound, and this too is a choreographed, rhythmic performance, the tempo varying from lulls to crescendos, with mini-collages and sub-plots inserted between – such as compilations of dream sequences, or egg timers, or clocks with no hands at all. The narrative is fragmentary, yet engaging: some movies contribute several excerpts, providing navigable plotlines that weave in and out. Cutting is clever, with one clip’s action leading into or commenting on the next, and soundtracks too often bleed from one clip into subsequent ones, altering their intended emotional tone. It took Marclay three years to make this piece and the amount of logistics, editing, rights gathering and sheer hard work involved makes the mind boggle. But the result is truly a magnum opus: The Clockis the ultimate time capsule.

A scene from George Pal's The Time Machine

Watching the film in an art gallery is like being HG Wells in George Pal’s haunting 1960 movie of The Time Machine (right), sitting rooted to a time-travelling couch while lives from ages past flicker briefly by. Cocooned on comfy sofas in a darkened auditorium, The Clock‘s audience similarly observes time yet feels outside of it, while just a short distance away, real-time people come and go and daylight changes unseen. Onscreen, the experience is parallel: Marclay has sampled an international medley of films ranging from early monochrome talkies to recent productions, and famous actors flit through the scenic mosaic at many ages and stages of their careers. You can’t help trying to name and date the movies, studying the myriad directing and acting styles like a time detective examining clues. The one constant is the clock as metaphor, and the limited repertoire of things directors tend to do with it: look, listen, punch, throw, and sometimes cuddle. Then too there is a sub-theme of time-travelling movies embedded reflexively within this uber-time-travelling movie – for instance Groundhog Day pops up reliably at 6am, and the Back to the Future trilogy recurs. On another level, The Clock hints at our personal relationships with time: sometimes characters watch their clocks, and sometimes their clocks watch them. Activities peak and trough with the real world, so after 4am we get slow waves of crime and dreaming; by 8am, brisk cuts of curtain-pulling and work-going; and at the top of every hour, a hail of bing-bongs as endless plot points are reinforced by striking the time. Taken as an over-arching whole, Marclay has orchestrated a masterly taxonomy of how cinema portrays times of day, akin to a modern-day devotional book of hours, or an attention-deficit sufferer’s dream version of TV show 24. The possibilities of deconstruction, like the film itself, seem endless.

The Clock is routinely described as compelling, which is accurate: it’s like the best film trailer you ever saw, each clip leaving you wanting more. White Cube mounted three 24 hour performances for punters with time to kill; some fanatics planned staggered 24-hour viewings, and there were reports of huge afternoon queues. Therefore when I visited at 4am, I expected to find a sea of slumbering arties and smashed post-clubbers reminiscent of Scala all-nighters in their flea-infested heyday. Yet instead White Cube was somnolent, containing only a handful of die-hard art fans plus two friendly if slightly sceptical security guards, which made for a civilized and meditative viewing experience. Unfortunately when the small hours became the wee hours I discovered the gallery’s loos were out of action, and had to gatecrash the Marie Celeste-like grand hotel next door for bladder relief. After an hour or so of total immersion in The Clock‘s pre-dawn scheming and dreaming, sneaking past a lone toiling cleaner into the hotel’s empty, over-lit washrooms was like being in a film of my own. And to re-emerge from White Cube at 8.30am, segueing from Marclay’s breakfast-time frenzy of clock-punching and commuting into a real London just awakening to Saturday morning, was surreal: the bustling passers-by looked no more alive than their on-screen avatars, and every clock appeared magnificently significant.

Like the 24-hour completists I too would happily watch more of The Clock, especially since in the few hours I’ve viewed so far I spotted one strange anomaly: at around 7.55am, a black-and white boy awakes to an alarm clock showing 6.55am. Is this a deliberate error to test the concentration, like the phantom roads on London’s A to Z map that catch out plagiarists? Or is it a recurring plot point, later to be corrected by the boy realising his clock was one hour behind? Or is it simply an honest mistake, a tiny disruption in Marclay’s perfect filmic fabric such as those left in Islamic carpets in order not to usurp Allah? I have no idea, but it would be nice go back and find out, perhaps photographing that anomalous moment on a digital camera with the “real” hour burnt into the frame, my own personal clock-based art object. If only I could find the time…

• White Cube, Masons Yard, London W1, 

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