Time Flies: Christian Marclay's "The Clock" at MFA Boston

by Mattie Kahn

The irony of obsessively checking my watch as I venture towards Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts is not lost on me. It’s 8 a.m. on the Monday of a long weekend, and while my classmates pass these morning hours in blissful repose, I’m racing across the Charles River to arrive at the MFA before the daily crowd descends. It’s not any exhibit that could lure me from the cozy confines of the Cambridge bubble. The purpose of my outing is of a single focus: I am giddy to take in Christian Marclay’s much-lauded, critically-acclaimed magnum opus: The Clock.

The MFA calls The Clock an "ode to time and cinema" with "thousands of fragments from a range of films that create a 24-hour, looped, single-channel video." And further: "The Clock tells the accurate time at any given moment, and wherever it is screened it is synchronized to the local time zone, so that it is literally a working time piece." In layman’s terms, what this means is that when I throw open the doors to the cushy, dark gallery-meets-theater where the piece is being screened at exactly 10:07 a.m., the image I see on the screen in front of me is that of a timepiece, whose face reads: 10:07.

The Clock, I discover, is arresting, beautiful, paradoxical and occasionally humorous enough to elicit collective laughter. It is also addictive. While many of its attendees report watching for more than a half-hour, I recline for more than two hours—enthralled. At every point that I think I might care to slip out of the immersive space, I find myself reeled in by a scene from The Breakfast Club, Titanic or the realization of the work’s suspense, which literally calls on you to wonder What Will Happen Next?

I’m certainly not the only Harvard-affiliate who has found herself captivated by The Clock. Jen Mergel ’98, is a curator of the project and integral to realizing Marclay’s vision of the exhibit within the museum. Mergel says the visual arts were not, at least initially, her intended course of study when she arrived at Harvard. At the start of her freshman year, she thought she would study cognitive neurobiology, but one core class in the VES department later, and Mergel was "totally sucked in—like a sponge." She found herself at the college during a time of flux for the VES program. "It was a really exciting time to be there," she says, acknowledging the difference between her art classes and the rest of her course load. "You’re doing your Math 1A and your French B, but of course, you stay up all night doing the studio projects. You don’t even notice the time go by. I can’t say I was expecting to pursue studio art as an undergraduate, but it was absolutely fundamental to my experience at Harvard. I feel lucky for it."

After graduation, Mergel moved from artist—she specialized in sculpture—to art teacher and then to curator. "I enjoyed asking a question through the structure of an exhibition," she says. The necessary curiosity of working as a curator harkens back to her original interest in the cognitive sciences: "How do we discern difference, or nuance? Are you afraid of it? Are you intrigued by it?" These are questions of the lab and of the brain, but also, holds Mergel, of art. "Those are still questions that I ask at work every day."

Mergel’s, and, of course, Marclay’s efforts are apparent within the room selected for The Clock’s residence at the Museum. Marclay executed every experiential decision, from making sure the space was fitting for the work, to making sure that seating was comfortable (Author’s note: It is!), to balancing sound and light for an optimal viewing experience. This is not just a movie premiere or a video montage. This is art, and the attention to detail conveys the difference in a way that isn’t haughty, but striking.

"You are present in it, and yet is it so much bigger than you," notes Mergel. "It is one of those experiences you hope art gives you as often as possible, and what’s special about this piece is that it consistently does that again and again and again." When I asked her how many hours of the piece she’s seen, she laughs. "I’ve been there from 2:30 a.m. to 8:45 a.m., and I’ve seen most of the afternoon hours."

"It’s hard to pull yourself away," I offer, thinking of my own reluctance to rise from my seat at precisely 12:11 p.m.

"Some people say it feels like time is slipping away," Mergel says. "But I feel like time is being filled."

As a Harvard ID holder, who gains free admission to the MFA, I have no reason not to return between now and December 31, when the exhibit closes. I’m eager to experience 1 p.m., or noon again, or even 2:27. I suppose every moment within the exhibition feels weighted, because, in this movie, every second counts.

[Caption: The Clock, Christian Marclay (American, born 1955), 2010, Single channel video, Duration: 24 hours © the artist. Photo: Todd-White Art Photography. Image Courtesy White Cube, London and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (for all images)]

[Caption: The Clock, Christian Marclay ]

[Caption: The Clock, Christian Marclay]

[Caption: The Clock, Christian Marclay]

[Caption: The Clock, Christian Marclay]