Marcel Proust had his madeleines, delicate confections whose mere taste stirred up powerful private memories. Americans have movies and television shows, and the personal associations we ascribe to rewatching "Casablanca" or "Star Wars," or seeing an old TV clip of "Columbo," can be as piquant as the scent of popcorn.
This summer at LACMA, Christian Marclay's cinematic artwork "The Clock" (2010), a 24-hour-long compilation of thousands of film and TV clips, will offer remembrances of Hollywood matinees past. His mash-up, sampled from across all film and TV genres, and spanning many cultures and eras, consists almost entirely of images and dialogue that depict or allude to the passage of time: close-ups of wristwatches, dramatic shots of Big Ben, pans of clock faces in Grand Central Station, images of train timetables and airline departure schedules, and countless sequences of people waiting around or rushing off to fateful rendezvous.
Edited into one seamless work, "The Clock" is exactly synchronized to local time, wherever in the world it's being shown, and runs in a continuous loop. During Monday's initial 24-hour screening of "The Clock" in LACMA's Bing Theater, the scores of rotating audience members occasionally laughed with pleasure or murmured to one another when they recognized familiar snatches of films or faces of stars. The work, which LACMA recently acquired, will be screened again in a smaller gallery space starting Friday and running through July 3 — but only during museum hours.
In an interview in a nearby LACMA office while the screening went forward, Marclay said that he didn't conceive "The Clock" as an exercise in nostalgia. Its true subject isn't movies themselves, or the pleasure of watching them, but the incremental ticking away of human lives.
"I've always thought of this piece as a giant memento mori," Marclay said, using a Latin phrase meaning "Remember your mortality" that has been applied to previous artistic genres, such as still life paintings, that serve as visual allegories of life and death.
"We go to the movies to forget about time, to be in a dream state," said Marclay, who was born in California in 1955 but still speaks with a trace of the guttural accent he acquired while being raised in Switzerland. "And it's entertainment, distraction, from the fact that everything is kind of crumbling in front of our eyes. And [in 'The Clock'] it's the opposite. You're constantly reminded that you've wasted an hour of your time, and you're constantly reminded about this thing that you're trying to figure out: time. So I think it is an anxiety. There are different approaches to it, but I think it is a little bit disturbing to most people."
Marclay said that making "The Clock," a two-year project, was fun but also difficult and, well, intensely time-consuming. Six assistants helped out by renting videos at shops in London, where Marclay spends part of his work year, then watching and culling them for time-based images and references. Marclay then would select the clips he wanted to use and slot them into one of the 24 separate time lines (one for each hour) that he was stitching together with digital editing software.
Sitting in front of a computer screen for up to 12 hours at a stretch was "physically very demanding," Marclay said, and he experienced back problems and carpal tunnel syndrome. "It's like torture, but you get these little moments of satisfaction and it keeps you going. It's like this little rush of adrenaline when you get it right."
Marclay said the idea occurred to him in 2005, but he kept it secret for a reason that any Hollywood executive would understand: He feared that someone might steal it.
He'd made a previous ambient, environmental work "Video Quartet" (2002), a 13-minute installation comprising four music clips synchronized with movie samples. With "The Clock," Marclay, who also works as a DJ, uses images of body movements, jump-cuts and other visual and audio cues to create rhythmic flow, much the same way that a disc jockey manipulates dance beats.
"I see Christian's practice as very much a music practice, the way he composes, creates, performs and records sound as a real threading together of sonic layers, harmonies, rhythms, melodies," said Christine Kim, LACMA associate curator of contemporary art. "The way he's approaching cinema is very similar to that of a DJ."
Marclay doesn't consider himself a film buff, and while making "The Clock" the last thing he wanted to do was go to the movies. Instead, he took up yoga. After the obsessive demands of "The Clock," he's now working on a couple of short video projects that are "very modest in scale."
"There's no rush to them," he said. "I'm taking my time."