Memento Mori: Reflections on Time and Christian Marclay’s The Clock

Christian Marclay

Described as the hottest art work in the world right now, Christian Marclay’s The Clock is probably the closest cinema has ever come to representing real life in real-time in all its complexity.

With breath-taking ambition and an enviable clarity of thinking, Marclay’s achievement will almost certainly be regarded by film, cultural and art historians as one of the major landmarks in 21st century art and cinema. It is by far the most thrilling thing I have seen for many years. And if, after reading this, you think there’s a chance you may agree, I strongly urge you to make your way to The Slaughterhouse in Plymouth where it is playing as part of British Art Show 7 until 4 December this year.

Time and References to Time

The Clock is a 24-hour long montage meticulously constructed by Marclay and sound designer Quentin Chiappetta from several thousand film scenes that feature clocks or references to time. It took two years and a team of six researchers to assemble all the footage, which in itself is no small wonder given the scale of their achievement. For what Marclay and his collaborators have achieved is a fully functioning timepiece, a work of art that tells the precise time of day, minute by minute, wherever it is shown, exactly matching the time in the real world.

Joseph Gordon Levitt in Brick (2005)

I walked into the screening room at 12.46 just as Joseph Gordon Levitt’s character in the film Brick checks his watch – which reveals it is 12.46 – and the phonebooth on the corner on Sarmentoso and Del Rio Drive let out a sharp ring. I left at 18.03, shortly after David Tomlinson (playing Mr. Banks in Mary Poppins) sings: “It’s 6.03 and the heirs to my dominion are scrubbed and tubbed and adequately fed”. The effect is astounding: heightening one’s awareness of time, while also deepening the pleasure of its passing.

This is no random collection of clips. It is as perfect and stimulating a work of art as I know of – from the originality of the idea right through to its mesmerising execution on-screen. I didn’t want it to stop, and, if I didn’t have to catch the last train back to Oxford that night, I would have joined the brave few in the audience who were staying for the full screening.

A Patchwork History of Film

Our lives on screen

One of the most pleasurable discoveries about The Clock is the realisation that, in the 115 years since the Lumiere Brothers first projected motion pictures at public screenings, we have managed to capture on film specific visual or aural references to every minute of the day: all one thousand four hundred and forty units of them.

But The Clock is more than just a record of this astonishing fact – it is, I would argue, a distillation of our modern world’s collective wisdom about time captured on-screen; a patchwork history of film that celebrates our efforts to document, understand and enjoy the times we live in. Spanning many genres, periods and nationalities, it is ultimately an affirmation of the work of millions of people who have made it possible for us to leave behind such a rich record of real and imagined human life.

The Rhythm of our Days

As one watches The Clock, the regular rhythm of our days are slowly revealed, and each hour’s unique character comes back – like the memory of an old friend. For instance, one o’ clock is the lunch hour and so we see scenes of people in restaurants: eating, drinking, and placing their orders. Some are late for appointments; others are busy at work. Some are stuck in traffic; others walk crowded city streets. Some wait for their lovers; others wait in a queue.

The frenetic quality of this hour – an example of what Jonathan Rosenbaum has called “hot time” – contrasts dramatically with the hours leading up to supper. Two o’clock is the hour of siesta, a time for slowing down. Three o’clock is the hour of watching time pass by in which nothing much seems to happen besides our anticipation of the working day’s end. Four o’ clock (finally!) is closing time. Five o’clock – the hour of transition. There is the journey home or to work; the night shift approaches; darkness approaches; sunset draws near. For some a time for winding down; for others a showdown.

Ruled by the clock

Time is money

Time, of course, is always in the background of our lives. There are clocks on wrists, walls, mantel pieces, towers, and buildings. Everywhere. Just take a look around you. There’s probably a clock nearby – somewhere in the room; somewhere on this screen. It is precisely because of time’s ubiquity, and its intransigence to our individual will, that the instrument and means of its measurement have gained such importance in our lives. Still, it is only while watching The Clock that I became aware of the engineering and science required to coordinate the whole world – precisely to within a millionth of a second.

In a wonderful moment of synchronicity, a few weeks after the screening, I caught a brilliant report on Radio 4’s Today Show about Coordinated Universal Time, the Leap Second and the recent controversy over the proposal to abolish it – confirming this initial impression. For in today’s hyper-connected world, time is more than just a useful means of marking out the day. Time and time management is an industry. All of our enterprise and activities depend on it. Time determines our reliability and worth to others. And we’re held to account for how we spend it. Time can make you feel powerless. But herein lies the paradox and power of Marclay’s creation. For in raising our consciousness about the nature of time, he breaks – at least temporarily – its hold over us.

Harold Lloyd holding on to time for dear life: Safety Last (1923)

I experienced such a moment during the screening at the precisely 14:40, which also happened to be the exact time on-screen in one of the most iconic scenes in the history of cinema: Harold Lloyd hanging from a clock high above the high street. The image (of a feebish man holding on to time for dear life) been reproduced so many times, it’s almost as if we’ve become numb to its metaphorical meaning. In the context of Marclay’s work, however, the full genius of the scene shines through. As Lloyd slowly loses his grip, and the clock’s facade comes undone, the mechanics of time are revealed. Time is our creation; our perception of existence; the order we impose on the world. And yet, see how helpless we are to it! Or so it would seem.

Enjoy Yourself; It’s Later Than You Think

It is this quality in Marclay’s work that places it within the great canon of art known as memento mori. Variously translated as “Remember you must die” or “Remember you will die”, the phrase refers broadly to different forms of cultural expression (paintings, sculpture, literature and even festivals, such as the Mexican Day of the Dead) that seek to remind us of our mortality. They prompt us both to take initiative and to enjoy the time we have while we’re still alive.

However, The Clock is much more subtle in the way it brings about this realisation than most memento mori. There is not much focus on death and ways of dying, which might have been easy enough given cinema’s all to comfortable relationship with gore and violence. Instead, Marclay shows the human species struggling with mortality, as for example, when he quotes the wonderful scene from Hook, where Peter Pan tries to make time stand still by smashing a room full of clocks. He points to our inventive attempts at escaping the prison of time through his use of George Pal and David Duncan’s 1960s adaptation of H.G. Wells’ Time Machine. And in a great scene from a film I don’t know, he shows our children contemplating the future’s view of the past as a teacher introduces them to the idea of a time capsule.

For Whom The Bell Tolls?

However, if all of this creates the impression that Marclay’s role can be reduced to that of cinematic quodophile (one who collects quotes), this greatly belies his own original contribution, which comes in the sample act of showing film stars at various points in their careers. Orson Welles, Robert De Niro, Edward G. Robinson, Sean Connery, Anthony Hopkins, Marcelo Mastroianni, Gunnar Bjornstrand: these were some of a great parade of men I noticed recurring during my sitting. Here younger; there older; and many times in between. Yet, despite the nagging gender bias, it is their humanity that shines through in the end. We all get old; we all die eventually. Men, women, plants, animals. Our death gives the planet a chance to renew. To regenerate. Which is precisely what I felt on leaving the Slaughterhouse that evening.

How can one not have one’s consciousness raised by such a unique feat?


About Darwin Franks

Filmmaker, Cinephile, Writer, Athiest, Civil Servant


  1. Pingback: Memento Mori: Reflections on Time and Christian Marclay’s The Clock « The Mind Worm | Logically Backwards

  2. Loved your critique which resonated with me. What a journey eh, which though full of artifice strangely seemed to leave the world wiped clean of illusion. So much to discover there. Would love to see it again.

  3. Pingback: Time Keeps On Ticking – Urban Times

  4. Pingback: Is it that time already? « Artwrite

  5. Pingback: Memento mori: Reflections on time and Christian Marclay’s The Clock –

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