At 2:15 a.m. on a recent Friday, on the fourth floor of SFMOMA, a smattering of art-goers snoozed, lying prone on soft couches after watching a few hours of Christian Marclay's The Clock. The snores. The drooling. Marclay's masterpiece. Those who digest the full scope of The Clock, which is 24 hours long, are inevitably reduced to laughter, awe, and, yes, Rapid Eye Movements.
At SFMOMA, where The Clock is on view until June 2 — and where it's having special all-night screenings five more times — the museum has deputized docents to wake up people who fall asleep during Marclay's colossal work. There's never been anything like The Clock, which stitches together thousands of movie scenes that reference the time of day. Each new minute, a timepiece on screen, an actor's lines, or something announces the exact minute that audiences are watching the film. At 12:20 a.m., for instance, The Clock has a tuxedo-clad James Bond, Sean Connery in Goldfinger, standing in a nightclub and calmly eyeing his watch as it ticks toward 12:20 a.m., when explosives will obliterate a villain's compound. At 10:17 p.m., The Clock has actor Michael Keaton as a tabloid editor in The Paper, running through a newsroom and past a clock that says 10:17 p.m. as he barks instructions to underlings. Blink and you'll miss ticking clues that Marclay has studiously embedded in his work. Once you get into the rhythm of The Clock, it becomes an enthralling ride — a kind of cinematic acid trip that tests the staying power of everyone who sits down before it.
The Clock, which took three years to make, has become the art world's most talked-about film project since it debuted in 2010, and unsurprisingly, it's divided audiences. His worst critics have derided The Clock as a "gimmick," but even Marclay's detractors credit his resolve to complete the project, which required thousands of hours to sift through potential scenes. But the film's success — it won the Venice Biennale's top prize in 2011, and has since screened to standing-room-only crowds around the world — has brought renewed attention to Marclay's other projects.
Just two blocks from SFMOMA, the Fraenkel Gallery offers insight into Marclay's longtime vision with "Things I've Heard," an exhibit of humorous photos that Marclay has taken over the past 20 years. Marclay, who was born in San Rafael, raised in Switzerland, and now divides his time between New York and London, enjoys delving into seemingly unassuming edges of public spaces. In a 2004 photo at the Fraenkel Gallery, the receiver of a yellow telephone — unmoored from its pay-phone base — dangles over a gray and dirty New York sidewalk. In a 1998 image from Chicago, a parked car has an upside-down hangar for an antenna. And in a 1992 photo from Frankfurt, a small "Just Married" sign and a tangle of cans are attached to the back of a big tour bus. The backdrop of every image at Fraenkel Gallery is sound — which fits into Marclay's history as a composer and experimental recording artist.
In the late '70s, Marclay was one of the first people in the United States to use records and turntables in public performances, deliberately skipping albums and scratching them to make sounds as he collaborated on stage with instrumentalists. In the '80s, he regularly performed with saxophonist John Zorn and percussionist David Moss. His interest in visual art and music coalesced in the 2002 film project, Video Quartet, a four-screen collage of Hollywood clips commissioned by SFMOMA that shows instrumentalists and actors, including Cary Grant and Harpo Marx, making very loud music. Like rap artists who sample other works to create new originals, Marclay is an unabashed appropriator who tries to shed new light on previous art that people may have forgotten about.
"I've always used found objects, images and sounds, and collaged them together, and tried to create something new and different with what was available," Marclay, 58, told the Journal of Contemporary Art. "To be totally original and start from scratch always seemed futile. I was more interested in taking something that existed and was part of my surroundings, to cut it up, twist it, turn it into something different; appropriating it and making it mine through manipulations and juxtapositions."
Marclay knows his projects won't necessarily appeal to mainstream audiences, but The Clock has enough word-of-mouth that long lines have appeared at SFMOMA, whose makeshift theater space sits fewer than 100 people. Kristi Highum, a video producer who took in The Clock at SFMOMA's first all-night showing, says it was worth the effort. "I would be asleep otherwise," she says at 2:20 a.m., on her way to catch a bus home. Highum says the dozing viewers at SFMOMA even added to the film's appeal: "The people who were slumped over — it reminded me of being in the library at college at 2 in the morning. Everyone is still there, supposedly still working, but at that point, it's just pointless because they're all really tired."
It's true. As engaging as The Clock is, it can't force people to stay awake. In fact, the movie's scenes of characters sleeping in the midnight hours only reinforce the fact that, at that hour, you should be asleep, too — not straddling a SFMOMA couch in a room with strangers, some of whom are wide awake, some of whom are making the kind of snoring sounds that Marclay might record if he were there himself.