Art school taught me a lot about art-making strategies that should be used with caution. Only a couple artists in any generation will get away with presenting mass amounts of one material or subject matter in their art, so be careful! The rest will be criticized for employing a technique that too easily dazzles. Also, while it’s important to create bodies of work that relate to each other, mind the catch: later it will become evidence that you’ve been recycling your work for years. Photographers and appropriation artists have it the worst, though. What other discipline demands the use of compelling material then rejects that content for being more interesting than its representation?
I spent a good deal of time thinking about these contradictions while watching Christian Marclay‘s “The Clock” at Paula Cooper Gallery (through February 19). I wondered if his 24 hours worth of spliced film footage counting the minutes of every hour might be a little gimmicky. It’s a facile concept, and not so different from “Telephones,” a 1994 video in which he sliced together a bizarre conversation made from movie scenes of people on the phone. Was he really adding to the pre-existing material in either work?
It turns out there’s more than meets the eye. For one, even the harshest critic has to acknowledge that the film’s pacing and editing are brilliantly executed. Marclay mixes footage from iconic and obscure movies so astutely that a viewer rarely ends up fixating on familiar clips. Scenes from well-known films such as The Apartment, Back to Future and Adventures in Babysitting all appeared while I was there, as did clips from countless films I couldn’t identify. Film snippets I paid closer attention to were usually a result of Marclay’s direction: that The Time Machine makes several appearances is no accident—it’s there to remind us that time can be manipulated.
The film as a whole resembles a musical score; crescendos and diminuendos mark many sequences, and mini-narratives often build around the turn of the hour. Shortly after 5pm, for example, dessert scenes dominate and cowboys quietly check their pocket watches; by 6pm scores of clocks are ringing. A general nervousness over when father will get home for supper pervades this period. Oddly, as the hour turned I found myself expecting the movie to complete itself, as if it would know that the gallery was about to close (Fridays it’s open all night).
That experience of feeling as though you are connected with the film confirms that, although film and photography are more “real” than other media for documenting things exactly as they were, their rootedness in the past alienates the present-day audience. It’s an idea raised by philosopher Stanley Cavell in 1979 and loudly echoed in Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida the following year. Marclay collects these fragments of the past—indubitable as what-has-been, but obviously false as what-is—and maps them onto present time. In the process he blurs the distinction between film and reality, reestablishing briefly a realness that time otherwise suppresses.
I enjoyed this experience, but a nagging feeling from my art school days remained. For all the skill Marclay brought to the piece, it still felt a little cold and impersonal. Perhaps that’s the intrinsic nature of a mash-up—the source material will always dominate the maker—though it’s likely also the result of moments of great success within film. I wanted more Marclay, more realness infused in the piece. I began to wish for the physicality of his early performances.
(images courtesy Christian Marclay, Paula Cooper Gallery)