Before 'The Clock': Christian Marclay's Other Movies

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As we touched upon in our roundup of Venice Biennale artists you should know, Christian Marclay achieved art world stardom over the past year for The Clock. The 24-hour film montages clips from movies, each featuring a timepiece, to clock the cycle of an entire day, minute by minute. Described by critics as “utterly transfixing,” “magnificent,” “relentless and compelling,” and perhaps most intensely, “the most staggering, complex thing made by any artist so far this century” (emphasis mine), The Clock explores how representations of time in movies shape our own conception of it: What is seven o’clock supposed to look like (Marclay shows cocktails, the end of the workday, getting dressed for dinner, stricken commanders preparing for an alien invasion)? What happens — or as Marclay’s film insinuates — is supposed to happen at 3am? 7am? 1pm? How do representations of time in movies influence the activities we perform, ways we present ourselves, conventions we abide by? Surveying nearly a century of movies, The Clock seems to suggest that films inform the routines and customs of our own lives as much, if not more than, we inform the narrative of time in film. How meta we have become.

Exploring the influence of a certain object through movies is a central trope in Marclay’s work. The Clock sits aloft a long line of films that each explore the socio-cultural identity of a much represented but rather banal device. What Marclay has done to hourglasses, alarm clocks, and watches, he has also done to guns, guitars, and telephones, among many others. In the wake of Marclay’s über-prestigious win at the 54th Venice Biennale last week (he received a Golden Lion for Best Artist), it’s worth ticking through some of his earlier works.

Telephones, 1995

The work that started it all. Marclay made Telephones in 1995. Like The Clock, Telephones is a montage of movies, each depicting a central object, here the telephone. Phone conversations in films are sliced and diced and restrung together to create an absurd conversation that throws the conventions and social perceptions of the phone into high relief.

Guitar Drag, 2000

Unlike The Clock, Marclay’s Guitar Drag is not a montage but does zone in on a central object. The video shows an amplified Fender Stratocaster guitar attached to a rope being dragged behind a pickup truck in a Texas desert. The short film meditates on the guitar in more ways the one — the convention of smashing guitars at concerts, the penchant in the Fluxus movement for destroying objects, the role of the guitar in Wild West films — but most famously refers to the lynching of James Byrd Jr. who was dragged to his death behind a pickup truck.

Video Quartet, 2002

Video Quartet is one of Marclay’s most celebrated early works. The three-screen projection strings together 700 musical film clips, each depicting people playing music, to create a symphony of its own. The movie was the centerpiece of Marclay’s 2005 exhibit at London’s Barbican Curve Gallery and was later acquired into the Tate’s permanent collection.

Crossfire, 2007

This is a fearsome, terrifying work (I literally trembled the first time I watched it). Marclay features a close-up of a gun slowly being loaded and pointed directly at the camera. The frame is so tight (you cannot see anything but the barrel) that we feel the bullet will explode in our face. This scene is followed by a montage of images of guns, strung together so that rifles and pistols are shooting from one film into another. Marclay culls the visual history of firearms and creates a work that is, quite literally, disarming.

The Sounds of Christmas, 2004

The Sounds of Christmas is a pithy, ironic work that flips through the covers of holiday vinyls. Marclay has taken his collection of 1,200 Christmas LPs and created a video installation that features slow, sugar-sweet jazz — a woman mulling over mistletoe, her long-lost lover (will he make it home for Christmas?!), and general bitter-sweetness of the holiday season. Coupled with brightly patterned albums featuring sleigh bells and Santas, Marclay’s video visually plays out the kitschy music that takes over radio stations everywhere as soon as the turkey is carved. Fittingly, The Sounds of Christmas is exhibited each Christmas.