Christian Marclay – Glue


Christian Marclay’s ‘The Clock’ is just that: a twenty-four hour mechanism that allows us to tell the time. Unlike other clocks, this one is made up of the representation of clocks. Thousands of brief film extracts in which the face of a clock or watch appears or a time is referred to in the dialogue mark out the cycle. The fragments are taken from films of every genre and period: black and white comedy, fifties science fiction, Continental arthouse, seventies heist and modern horror. Spliced together with grace and invention, they form both a history of film and, as the title makes clear, a timepiece.


Marclay’s clock runs the full twenty-four hours and is synchronised to GMT – or to the time zone in which the work is shown – so that it does exactly what a timepiece is meant to do: we can consult it to learn the time. One glance is enough to give us our temporal bearings. We’ll just look at the screen and know how much time we’ve got left before our next rendezvous, before our plane or train departs. If works of art are often deemed artificial or illusory, this one can’t be: the time displayed or spoken is the real thing, the time that controls and regulates our lives.


Although Marclay’s work is quite literally a clock, it is also much more than that, and it complicates the transparency that we ascribe to timepieces. Although a watch or a clock can be a status symbol or the vehicle of memories, it offers an immediate access to its referent. We hardly ever have to decipher clock faces or interpret them; there is no hermeneutics of everyday time. They just tell us, albeit in different ways, what the time is. Yet Marclay’s clock not only marks the passing of minutes and hours, but invites us to reflect on our relation to time, as well as offering a rich and painful questioning of the nature of images, narrative, desire and indeed, what holds all of these together.




What is a clock? The immediate answer is a device to mark time, yet clocks are of course embedded in human life. As well as incarnating an abstract metric, they condition, shape and orientate human desire, fear and hope. We look forward to, dread or aspire to things in the future, just as we can regret or long for those of the past. As we watch the characters that inhabit ‘The Clock’, we realise that time is less an impersonal compass for them than a tyrannical force: they look anxiously at their watches and stare worriedly at clocks. The symbolic measure has a terrible power over them. Whatever they may wish, time just continues regardless, and it is this very contrast that generates tension in so many of the films that Marclay selects. Hardly anyone gazes lovingly at a clock, since time is rather the marker of frustration, trepidation and loss.


This minimal contrast between the metric of time and what time does sets the stage for Marclay’s project. An abstract symbolic process that moves on continuously with no care for human will or emotion, and the individual narratives that take shape around it: the lovers awaiting their rendezvous, the criminal gang conducting their heist, the family waiting for news of their loved ones. As well as functioning at one level as a history of the way that time is represented in cinema, ‘The Clock’ explores the unease that seems built into our relation to time: in lives where we can never know for sure what is going to happen, the cyclical passing of time is a constant. There is nothing we can do about it, and this basic discrepancy is a motor of the tension that Marclay documents.


Developing his practice of using found material, the artist has selected so many moments where this tension is palpable within film narratives, and then elaborated them into a new object. There are a lot of worried people in ‘The Clock’. Time just won’t stand still for them. But Marclay’s work poses another question here: is time so immune from the lives that take place within it? Through his technique of montage, he shows us that our experience of time is not only a given but also something constructed, built up, created.




Classically, there are three forms of time. Symbolic time is the abstract metrical time marked by clocks; imaginary time is the idea we have of duration and continuity; and real time is what happens when the metric goes wrong. We might experience the latter when we take drugs or when we hear some bad news or when we must make a crucial split-second decision. At such moments, time is often described as stopping, stretching out or freezing. The metric no longer functions, and the loss of everyday temporal coordinates can be felt at times with pleasure but most often with horror, anxiety or bewilderment.


If symbolic time operates via units, such as seconds, minutes and hours, imaginary time relies on the feeling of an unbroken chain. It gives us the illusion of temporal cohesion and works as the padding or stuffing of symbolic time. The units of any symbolic time metric are discrete, and thus discontinuous. If real time undoes our sense of reality, the nesting of symbolic and imaginary time gives our lives an illusion of continuity, similar to the illusion of continuity in the visual field. We don’t see the world around us as having holes in it, just as we tend not to be aware of discontinuities in time. But is this because such discontinuities don’t exist, or rather, as Marclay shows us, because we are engaged in ways of glossing over them?


To explore this aspect of time, Marclay’s choice of film was the logical starting point. “Time in film”, he points out, “is an artificial construct”. Cinema, after all, uses conventions and formal devices to make us experience a narrative as flowing continuously, just as it uses devices to create the illusion of being in the same space. We move through a temporal sequence with markers to direct our understanding of the chain of events. It can shrink time or expand time. A shot of someone going to bed might be followed by one of their awakening; the image of a plane taking off might be followed by one of a protagonist going though customs. These juxtapositions indicate that one thing happens after another, that the characters are in the same space and time, that there is a continuity of both narrative and of the represented world.


But how is this continuity created? In ‘The Clock’, Marclay is working with thousands of extracts from different films. As such, there is discontinuity rather than continuity. Yet a variety of devices allow transitions from one scene to another, and in doing so suggests to us how cinematic reality is built up. If characters approach a door in one extract, the next extract may begin with characters entering a room. These “hinges”, as Marclay calls them, operate as transitional metaphors. Doors are a common device, as are phone calls, the ticking sounds of a clock, the rain, a time of day, a worried face, a fire, footsteps, a foreign language, a solitary figure and so on. They work to link scenes, even though we know that the scenes are taken from different sources.


Of all of these different devices, what is it ultimately that gives consistency to the sequences? What prevents us from simply experiencing ‘The Clock’ as a patchwork of disorder? Marclay is unequivocal: “Sound is the glue that will keep it together”. Although there are many hinges, it is the acoustic dimension that knots the images together: music, sound, speech, noise. Whatever the changes in colour, tone, composition, era, theme or motif, this is what supplies the thread to bind the elements of Marclay’s clock. Continuity at the level of the image is not enough.


Screen editors are alert to this power, and a number of experiments have demonstrated its effects on the viewer’s relation to visual images. Shown film footage with poor sound quality, the audience would complain that it had been badly shot or that they couldn’t actually see the images on screen. But when they were shown some genuinely poor footage with excellent sound, they would describe it as well shot.


This acoustic priority is echoed by the findings of dream researchers, exploring the relation of image to language. Studying the links between dream sequences, they found that although the form of dreams seems visual to the dreamer, the transitions were practically never based on the image. We won’t move from the image of a daisy to that of a bicycle wheel to the patterns made by a bullet in glass: it is less formal visual symmetries that establish the links and transition points in dreams than words, even though these are generally unconscious. The image of a bicycle wheel, for example, may move to a farewell scene, the link being the phonetic resonance of ‘Bi’ and ‘Bye’. Sound is organising sequential visual forms, yet Marclay’s work deepens this notion by questioning what sound and the acoustic dimension consist of in the first place.




In ‘Video Quartet’ (2002) Marclay created a score from a four screen projection of music-making activity. Actors and performers from Frank Sinatra to Harpo Marx  produced noise, either in a specifically musical way or in the form of screams, cries or other contingent sounds such as gun shots or breaking dishes. Marclay composed a piece of music with these film fragments, moving from a first moment of tuning through different musical times – crescendo, opera, tap, brass, crash – to a finale of melancholic trumpet playing. This work was not only an extraordinary feat of editing and composition, but it challenged directly the distinction between music and noise.


Via the process of collecting, shuffling and recombining, ‘Video Quartet’ showed how sounds that we would normally relegate to the realm of interference or unwanted noise could take on the dignity of musical form. Marclay’s orchestration took elements that belong to such margins and, through the work of editing, created something entirely new. A scream or a gun shot now become rhythm and music. And as well as turning noise into music, Marclay also made us question the nature of music: rather than a localised formal activity to be performed on its own stage, it becomes part of the texture of our lives: he has allowed us to hear everyday noises in a new way. Noise can be music just as music can be everyday noise.



If ‘Video Quartet’ showed how it is impossible to segregate music from noise, it also changes for us the meaning of music is profoundly changed. If the two terms in the famous movie title ‘The Sound of Music implied an equation, Marclay undid the equation and then put it back together. We witness both the crumpling of music into sound and the elevation of sound into music.




This process of transformation follows a logic in Marclay’s work, in which a peripheral or excluded element becomes central to the set it is habitually separated from. ‘Record without a cover’ (1985) specifies that the record displayed have no protection, so that it would be damaged “as part of its being”. In ‘Echo and Narcissus’ (1992), CDs are arranged on a floor and walked upon by those entering the gallery. The damage caused to the recordings is not treated as a negative intrusion requiring correction, but as the principle of a new and unique creation. The abrasion that breaks up the rhythm of the recorded music now becomes music. Damage becomes sound.


This practice of generating and then according a dignity to “unwanted sounds” is explored in many of the artist’s works, and it operates by an inclusion of the exterior of the original set, like in logic, in which a new set can be formed from a first set and what seems to be the complement of that set. We could think here of the construction of the natural numbers via set-theoretical operations on the empty set: rather than being excluded from the series, it can be used to generate them. The product of the elements of the empty set is one, and so on.


This process is present even in works which seem directly sculptural. In Marclay’s 2007 ‘Crossfire’, the viewer is shot at from all sides. Hundreds of clips of actors loading and firing guns assail us, having a direct impact on our sense of space. We find ourselves moving to avoid the bullets. Yet the lulls for reloading or for scrutinising the target introduce a lyrical punctuation to all the gun shots. The orchestration of shots and mechanical sounds generates a rhythm where one would least expect it. Music here is produced from exactly what one would take to be a disruption of music, the harsh noises of firearm discharge which one might take to be exactly the complement, in the mathematical sense, of music.


As Marclay says, “With music, I want to disrupt our listening habits. When a record skips or pops or we hear the surface noise, we try very hard to make an abstraction of it so it doesn’t disrupt the musical flow. I try to make people aware of these imperfections and accept them as music; the recording is a sort of illusion, while the scratch on the record is real” (1). One could see in this the paradigm of what analysts used to call sublimation: rather than suffer from the point of damage – what they would call castration – this point is made the actual principle of creation. Rather than cover over the damage, it is used to create something new.


This logic of inclusion extends to break down the very distinction between music and that which signifies music. In a number of projects, Marclay has taken musical notes depicted on cars or clothes or vases or receipts or chocolate boxes ( Shuffle 2007, Ephemera, 2009 ). They are there simply to signify music rather than to be music. Yet he has then presented these images to musicians and asked them to elaborate from them, turning the representation of music into music. This operation on the sign is continued in ‘The Clock’, since the way that time is signified in film actually becomes time. ‘The Clock’ is both about time and it is time, just as in Marclay’s other works musical notation both portrays music and is music.




There is a coherence in the artist’s approach to both time and music, not only in terms of the techniques of composition and decomposition, but also because of the formal equivalence between them. “Time”, as Marclay says, “is music”. Part of the power of music lies in this relation to time. What characterises most musical compositions both as units and as internal structure is repetition: a chorus, a melody, a chord series will come back, returning at a particular moment in the sequence. Thus, whatever the actual ‘content’ of the piece of music may be, whether it is by acoustic convention happy or sad, the listener is caught in a temporal structure where what was once present will disappear and then return once again.


This is the very structure of human desire which, as Freud observed, involved less the finding of an object than a refinding. Whatever the original, mythical moment of satisfaction was pleasurable or devastating, we still try to refind it, as if the formal, abstract operation of refinding has taken priority over the actual content of the initial experience. Desire for Freud was the effort to match representations, to achieve an identity of perception. We can see this not only in the junkie’s search for the first hit, but also in the way in which advertising and brands affect children. They are caught less in the narrative content of Thomas or Noddy than in the simple, formal refinding of the image or sign, as we can see from their reaction when the logo appears on a screen or a poster. The ‘Where’s Wally?’ books exploit this principle elegantly, dispensing entirely with narrative; all that matters is refinding the bespectacled figure in the crowd. When desire cannot be established as a dynamic structure, as in some cases of autism, this can become the most minimal effort to match representations, to make two objects or images identical to each other.


Sonata form is one of the clearest examples of the process of refinding in music, whereby an initial motif is introduced, rearranged and elaborated before it returns once again at the end of the piece. As an art of time, music almost always involves this structure, even if at times composers alter its conventions to create new forms which specifically aim to avoid the repetition of a sequence. Yet it is the refinding, the return of the motif, that contributes so powerfully to music’s hold over us. Going to a West End musical we can often see people’s tears well at the very start of the production: as the introductory motif is played, even before we know what is going to happen in the narrative, we understand that the motif will return later, perhaps with a new inflection and meaning. It is this formal, structural aspect of music that allows it to engage so directly with human desire.




If ‘The Clock’ is a musical work, with its own rhythms and internal times, it traps desire not simply through the expectation of returns. The experience of viewing Marclay’s work is undeniably painful: we are immersed in fragments of narrative and then torn away from them. There is certainly a delight in refinding films from our pasts, that may have marked us due to their content or via association with other events in our lives. But the exposure is all too brief. We are immediately thrown into another cinematic space, despite our hope that the extract will continue just a little bit more, just a few minutes or seconds longer. And these thousands of tiny separations have a real effect on us.


In a remarkable series of experiments conducted in the late 1920s, the Russian psychologist Blyuma Zeigarnik explored the differences between completed and broken activities (2). Tasks which were abridged or curtailed left more traces in memory and generated richer associations. To take an everyday example, think of an album we are familiar with. We know the order of the tracks, what will come next in the sequence. Then we listen to one of these tracks on, say, a compilation, and there will be a momentary sense of shock or bewilderment when the track we expect to follow is in fact different. Even if we ‘know’ consciously what will come next, there is still the moment of disquiet at the break in the continuity of our experience of a series. We could think also of the brief sense of shock when we put our tube train ticket into the machine at the barrier and it does not return it to us.


Another example is the mobile phone plague. It is much easier to overhear a conversation between two people in a public place than to overhear a mobile call in say, a train compartment. With the mobile, you only hear one party speaking, and this broken quality of the conversation will affect us in a different way. Psychoanalysts would take up Zeigarnik’s results in the 1940s and 50s, arguing that the fractures that had such significant effects indexed the broken nature of the Oedipal romance, shattering the imagined continuity of the love affair with the mother. Rene Spitz thought that this was linked to language itself. As children’s locomotor activity increases, and they can move beyond the mother’s reach or field of vision, she will make more verbal prohibitions: ‘Stop’, ‘Come back’ etc. The verbal prohibition and the interrupted activity are thus soldered together, making language the agency of fracture (3).


Although Spitz’s developmental story is inaccurate, as language exerts its hold long before locomotion, the link between language and the experience of incompleteness is exact. The memories and traces most deeply inscribed in our pasts will be those that evoke a broken, frustrated and incomplete action or activity. Language, as a symbolic system, orders, shapes and creates our experience of the world, and this process involves a violence, tearing us away from bodily sensation and restructuring our relations with others. When we listen to a series of songs later on, the small and seemingly insignificant ruptures in the sequence could instantiate this basic operation.


The breaks in continuity embody the principle of symbolic functioning itself: the material of the symbolic, after all, is made up of differential units, defined purely by their difference from each other. That must be why we always tend to think of clocks as going ‘Tick Tock’ when, as Frank Kermode observed many years ago, they actually go ‘Tick Tick’. Difference is the characteristic of the symbolic metric, and there is an irrevocable split between the world of the imaginary, established through the matrix of visual images, and the violence of the symbolic, made up of signifiers.


Zeigarnik’s idea would also be used to explain the use of variable sessions in psychoanalytic practice. Rather than working with a fixed time, such as half an hour or fifty minutes, the sessions would be modulated on what the analysand was saying: they could last only a few seconds. The key was the effect of fracture introduced by cutting the session, which in itself would generate memories and access to material that would, as Zeigarnik showed, otherwise by inaccessible. An activity of cutting would thus work to undo our imagined sense of continuity, breaking down the stories we tell ourselves about our lives and the rationalisations and narratives that we manufacture to cover over points of unbearable truth.


For those who don’t have the experience of variable sessions, Marclay’s work is the closest you can get to it. ‘The Clock’ is an orchestration of such breaks, a texture of thousands of unbearable separations. We become sucked into the images so swiftly, taken up in the smallest, most minimal portions of narrative, only to be wrenched into another narrative, and then into another. This is a painful and disturbing process that invites us to reflect not only on why we become trapped so quickly in images but also what the function of narrative and stories is for us. Even though the films will undoubtedly evoke times in our lives, it is not just an archive of memory that is at stake here, not just about when we saw it, who we were with etc. Even if those times may feel lost to us as we watch Marclay’s clock, it is the formal process of montage that introduces loss in a more structural way. As the artist points out, ‘The Clock’ is a “gigantic memento mori”.





The experience of watching Marclay’s clock is not just a painful one. The bitterness of a thousand separations is tempered by a certain sweetness, a pleasure, evinced not simply by the virtuosity of the composition and the moments of refinding but by the quality and texture of the images, the grain, the surface, the sensuousness of each extract. ‘The Clock’ introduces a spectrum, at one end of which is the pain of being wrenched away and at the other is a pleasure linked to the image.


Should we see these two poles as isolated effects of the experience of viewing, or, on the contrary, as related to each other in terms of process? Isn’t the sense of pleasure an effect of the experience of pain? The polarisation of pleasure on the qualities of the image as image may be an actual effect of the experience of a cut, of a break in continuity. As we are torn away from each of the narrative fragments, we try to retrieve a bonus of enjoyment, a plus at the very place of the minus. Perhaps this is why images exert such a power over us in the first place: they take on their consistency at the precise place where we experience our greatest weakness.


‘The Clock’ invites us to reflect on this unconscious rhythm, and Marclay’s piece suggests that it extends beyond the immediate experience of viewing the work. The focus, after all, is on how continuity is created, even if continuity is broken in the very same gesture that establishes it. Does everyday reality rely on the same set of conventions to generate a sense of consistency or narrative? We know that since this can break down, there must be some kind of glue that sticks it together in the first place. Isn’t this the same sort of acoustic glue that Marclay explores in ‘The Clock’, giving reality a consistency for us which otherwise it would not have?


‘The Clock’ accentuates the discontinuity of the visual world at the same time as veiling it. Through this process, we can think about the pulsation that keeps reality in place, the rhythm of cuts and solders that give us the illusion we inhabit a single space and time. This must be the only clock that people will want to keep on watching, aware of time passing yet also, as Marclay suggests, “becoming lost in it”. It’s a clock that will make us late for wherever it is we have to be.



(1) ‘Words and Music: Interview with Christian Marclay’, New Art Examiner, Sep/Oct, 2001, p.80.

(2) Zeigarnik, ‘Uber das Behalten von erledigten und unerledigten Handlungen’, Psychologische Forschung, 9, 1927, pp.1-85.

(3) Rene Spitz, ‘No and Yes’, New York, IUP, 1957.