Christopher Bernard on the SF Moma’s new exhibit, Christian Marclay’s The Clock


View of a scene from “The Clock,” by Christian Marclay


Christian Marclay: The Clock

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Through June 2


A review by Christopher Bernard


Christian Marclay’s extraordinary work “The Clock” is like no film you have ever seen—and like every film you have ever seen.

The gigantic 24-long film, screening continuously throughout the exhibit, was created by splicing together scenes from films, old and new, in which timepieces appear or the time is mentioned, each moment of the time shown on screen being synchronized with the actual time the work is shown. When the film says 2:19 on the screen, it is (or should be) 2:19 on your watch.

The Clock” is, indeed, a clock—perhaps the most complex timepiece ever devised, and like its fellows, infinitely provocative and suggestive. Watching it is like staring at, well, a clock—and as irritating and hypnotic as watching the minute hand move imperceptibly to the next number on the dial.

Christian Marclay, born in San Rafael, grew up in Switzerland, and now lives in London. As well as being one of the most important video artists now at work, he is also a DJ, using his skills in sampling and mixing in his visual as much as in his musical work. (SFMOMA has a special relationship with the artist, and has other works by him in its collection, including Video Quartet.)

At first I found his new work disconcerting. The steady pounding of scenes from unrelated movies most of which feature a clockface (including watches, sundials, hourglasses) in the fore- or background, sometimes barely visible, and all of them displaying the film’s “narrative” time, seemed mechanical and monotonous at first. I found myself compulsively searching for “the clock” in those scenes where it wasn’t obvious, but soon found the effort more annoying than enlightening.

Then at a certain point, I gave up and gave myself over to the peculiar flow, eddy, whirl, stops, starts, the leaps, swirls and peripeteias, of this immense temporal collage, and ignored the artificial cliffhangers created by scenes that set the audience up and then deliberately go nowhere except to the next minute, and I found myself mesmerized, taken into a dream of time unlike anything I have experienced since the day in childhood when I first discovered clocks and spent part of a morning watching the second hand sweep across the dial, and tried to catch out the minute hand as it moved with immense, majestic slowness toward the great number 12.

(I’ve visited twice so far, each time staying at least two hours; watching from just before 12 noon until 5:30 p.m.—and I strongly recommend taking the work in such long “gulps.”)

Many human experiences, of course, cluster around particular times of day, and as in life, so in film. “The Clock” displays these with clarity and flair: lunches in early afternoon, whether a sandwich grabbed in a diner, or a drawn-out business affair, at the toot of a midday factory horn or as a social occasion big as dinner; then the doldrums of afternoon classrooms; the stampede at 5 o’clock; and the buzz of the following cocktail hour.

Certain hours have always been used as dramatic markers, whether “High Noon” (and yes, the moment you would expect from the Gary Cooper film is here, although, if you blink, you could miss it) or midnight for romantic trysts, or cat burgling. Yet in “The Clock,” these times come and go, without the shock and stop to be found in a movie drama; in fact, with no more than a minute’s time before off we go to the next, equally parsed, equally sized, pitilessly brief slice of an hour.

That some of the minutes in “The Clock” seem longer and are certainly more dramatic than others is even explained in a scene where the psychology of time is discussed: you’re likely to remember “The Clock”’s depiction of 12 noon (with its dramatic lead-up, a countdown that leads to nothing more dramatic than . . . 12:01) a good deal more clearly than its depiction of 3:53 pm, even though both times take exactly a minute to depict.

In the end, as you whir through hundreds, eventually thousands, of scenes from films you have seen, and many you haven’t, from silents of the past and to the digital films of the present; through shots and scenes and entire sequences, some cut up and extended over many minutes, like a great musical cubist fresco, with famous actors flashing by in a fugal collage of faces and voices, you see that “The Clock” is more than just about clocks and watches, moments of panic, joy, terror, suspense, cliffhangers and the knife-edge moment, it is about love, loss, death, birth. About time, in its most human, and most inhuman, forms. It’s about our life, in all its messiness, fragility, and stress, the lives of individuals, and the unending cycle of life on earth, in its monstrous and relentless and yes, beautiful, mystery. In the eighteenth century, the universe was likened to a clock. This Clock can be likened to the universe.

The Clock” is on display at SFMOMA in the weeks leading up to the temporary closure, starting in June, of the museum’s building during expansion. To accommodate those who want to see the work in its entirety, the museum will be open 24 hours on each Saturday in May and during one of the days leading up to the building’s closure.

On other days, though the film in fact screens nonstop, 24 hours a day (in its commodious yet intimate, sofa-furnished gallery, at the end of a short but effectively mazelike corridor), it can only be seen by visitors during the museum’s hours of admission, from 11 am to 5:45 p.m. most days (and until 8:45 p.m. on Thursdays).

The work’s rigid structure does not allow screening of the overnight portions during daylight hours, so those curious about how the work depicts, say, 4:53 a.m. (and this viewer is very much so) will have to visit the museum at the said hour. I’ll be there, with a Red Bull in one hand and a pillow in the other—if I can’t find someone warmer.


Christopher Bernard is a San Francisco novelist, poet and critic. He is author of the novel A Spy in the Ruins and co-editor of Caveat Lector (