I’ll admit: modern and contemporary art often leaves me cold. A pile of plain bricks, or an apple core with a nail in it, fails to inspire or excite me. I’m well outside of their target audience, if there is one. However, there are artists out there whose work really does blow me away.
If you’ve seen me in the last week, you’ve probably heard me raving about The Clock, a 24-hour film by Christian Marclay.
I blindly agreed to go to an exhibition on Thursday, which I thought was a documentary about clocks (why not?). As it turned out, it was the British Art Show 7: In The Days Of The Comet, which runs until later this month at South Bank’s Hayward Gallery. It’s a showcase of British contemporary art of the past 5 years.
The white walls were an immediate clue that I was going to be having a tough time. I was pleasantly surprised, though, that many of the exhibits provoked not just interest but real contemplation. It stands well above the post-1950s section of the Modern British Sculpture exhibition I recently checked out.
Enough about the exhibition as a whole: The Clock.
I didn’t know what it was. For the first 5 minutes, I sat, uncomfortable on a hard chair, practically sneering at what appeared to be a tacky montage of clocks. Yes, they were scene-checking hundreds of famous movies. Yes, they showed the real time (when we walked in at 2:30, the scenes were showing clocks with the time 2:30, and so on).
Then something interesting happened. I started to forget about the time. Narratives started to emerge from disparate movies. Scenes from black and white films were interspersed with recent Hollywood blockbusters, yet they somehow worked. I was immersed, and found it hard to leave, even after hours of uncomfortable shifting in my crappy chair.
Critics have levelled some serious fire at Marclay for The Clock. Formulaic, too easy, too popular, playing on a simple trope. But I think they miss the point: The Clock brings together multiple languages which have come to dominate our modern existence with a completeness like nothing I’ve seen.
The first of these is, obviously, time. Our lives are defined by the linear and inexorable passing of time, punctuated only by our attempts to subvert or escape its flow. We measure it, watch it, wait for it and lament when it wisps away a cherished moment into the inaccessible past.
The second is the language of film. Films distort time, playing out only snippets of the linear world we are forced to experience. Films achieve this using editing language which is so familiar to most of us that we don’t even notice it. For example, a person looking out of a window will then cut to the actual view from the window, or a conversation between two characters will cut between front-on views of each character. More importantly, we only need to see a character get into a car at one location and out of it at another to understand what’s happened: time is hidden away at will.
Third is the language of storytelling. The search for coherence in the world is deeply ingrained into our senses, and we make sense of the world by constructing narratives. We look for the who behind the why, and then ask: what’s their story? Whether it be a myth of a lightning-flinging god or the nightmare of a nuclear meltdown, we arrange facts and knowledge into a story we can work with.
Marclay has chopped and hacked the latter two languages, film and narrative, by maintaining a rigid structure for the first. The Taking of Pelham 123, a train hijack movie, appears with a scene in which John Travolta yells that hostages are going to start dying in 22 minutes. We see no more of Pelham until 22 seconds before the deadline, when we are jerked back into the situation until the crunch moment of the countdown. Before we get resolution, we’re jumped to a different movie, poised at a similarly climactic moment. Films appear and disappear, sometimes playing out a full minute or two, other times popping in for a second. The tension ratchets up, then slips down to the mundane, arcing through each minute and each hour without an end in sight.
I found myself reflecting on the conventions of film and sound, the way we understand what we see and the way we experience time. And gleefully ticking off scenes from movies I’ve watched. For a contemporary artist, drawing in media attention, an audience and interest to a piece which does genuinely offer space and time for contemplation of big questions is a big win from my perspective.
And, as fellow exhibition-goer Jake points out, you could use the film as a watch. That’s cool.
How about you? Have you seen any art lately that’s inspired you (or left you cold)?