North Van’s Polygon Gallery is busy installing a cinema, custom-built to the specifications of the man who created one of this decade’s most buzzed-about international artworks.
All summer long, audiences of about 80 or 90 people will be able to lounge on comfy modular sofas—sometimes in the middle of the night—to watch ever-looping screenings of The Clock.
“Luckily, IKEA started selling this certain set of couches again,” Polygon Gallery director Reid Shier says with a laugh over the phone on a break from installation.
For The Clock, which won the Gold Lion Award at the Venice Biennale in 2011, American artist Christian Marclay painstakingly edited together thousands of film and TV clips from the last 70 years—all of them referring to an exact time, whether through images of wristwatches, radio alarms, or clock towers, or through verbal references. Most brilliantly, the 24-hour montage is synchronized with the 24-hour clock of real time.
That’s what makes it so important to show the work, which has been screened everywhere from the Tate Modern to the Museum of Modern Art, in a custom-theatre setting with high audio and visual quality, says Shier. “It is about cinema. It is of cinema. And it takes you into cinema in a radically new way,” explains the curator, who’d been working to bring the piece here for years before the former Presentation House Gallery’s move into its new waterfront landmark in 2017. “So it needs to reflect those conditions. It needs to be very absorptive, so it can be a place that people spend a lot of time.
“This is not a piece you spend a couple minutes watching,” he stresses. “People get caught up in it.”
On its most basic level, The Clock operates as a timepiece. It also reflects our shared daily rhythms as humans: in the morning hours, you see people waking up and drinking coffee; later, there might be a noonhour shootout, or a car chase, or a dinner party. On another level, it is a love letter to cinema; classics like High Noon, M, and The Stranger are juxtaposed with Pulp Fiction, Taxi Driver, and countless more. And then there are the more transcendent meanings about time and mortality; the Guardian called it “a meditation on the mystery of time” and a “dreamlike kaleidoscope”.
Shier attempts to put words to the effect it had on him when he first witnessed it at the biennale. “It was one of those times where you see something so extraordinary you know you’re only going to see it once in a lifetime,” he says. “Your expectations are upended, and that’s one thing that’s extraordinary—how it develops its own rhythm.
“He carries you through and across clip to clip in a way that really is quite gentle, but that sucks you in in a way that’s very unexpected—and a lot of that has to do with sound,” he adds. “That’s what’s so radical about it: how it’s so hard to leave! You want to know what comes next. There’s no beginning and no end. There’s no point at which it culminates, except for maybe at midnight, when there’s sort of a crescendo.…There’s this sense of awe in watching it.”
The rhythms Shier talks about may stem partly from Marclay’s proficiency as a contemporary composer. Some of the American-born, Swiss-raised, London-based artist’s most pioneering work used turntables as musical instruments to create sound collages. He’s collaborated and performed with everyone from John Zorn to Sonic Youth. For the past 35 years, the 64-year-old talent has played with fusing fine-art and audio cultures; one well-known 2000 work, the video Guitar Drag, features an amplified Fender Stratocaster being dragged behind a pickup truck along Texan dirt roads.
In the Polygon’s former life as Presentation House Gallery, it showed Marclay’s seven-minute Telephones, a pre–YouTube supercut of people in films making phone calls. That piece was a direct precursor to The Clock, which ranks as Marclay’s most epic work—a feat that took three years and a team of assistants to create.
And by screening it (in a presentation organized by the National Gallery of Canada), the Polygon has scored a summer coup.
“There’s a real privilege to show something like this, not least because this is why we built the gallery, but also to continue the legacy of what we started up the hill [at Presentation House Gallery],” Shier says.
So how does one tackle something so monumental? You will probably have to line up; Shier says if the cinema is busy, you will be offered a timed ticket so you can wander the gallery’s other shows while you wait. His team hosts tours of The Clock every Saturday at 2 p.m. And don’t miss the special overnight screenings, held so visitors can see what happens in the wee hours, on July 5 and 26, August 16, and September 6 and 13.
“Very different stuff happens then,” Shier stresses. “It’s very rewarding to find it at different times of day.”
The Polygon Gallery presents The Clock from July 5 to September 15.