Why Are So Many Museums Buying Christian Marclay’s “The Clock”?

Christian Marclay's “The Clock” (2010) (image via folksonomy.co)

Geoff Edgers reports that the Boston MFA is buying Christian Marclay’s epic movie mash-up “The Clock” (2010) (recently on view in NYC) for $250,000, in a joint purchase with the National Gallery of Canada. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art bought the piece in April, and there are rumors that MoMA plans to do the same. What’s up with this collecting fad?

“The Clock” made a huge splash in New York when it was on view at Paula Cooper Gallery in February of this year, with curious gallery-goers literally lining up around the block to get a peek. The 24-hour video, made up of a compilation of clips from iconic movies that reference the time of day, one clip for every few minutes, attracted audiences like very little contemporary art can, managing to hit a sweet spot between conceptual achievement and mainstream accessibility.

Still from “The Clock” (image via artcritical.com)

Marclay’s video was almost accepted as iconic on arrival, the buzz for the piece so strong (it took Marclay and a team of assistants two years to make! it had crowds lining up at its first showing at White Cube in London! it’s a triumph of appropriation!) that it became impossible to ignore. Yet despite some tepid critical evaluations, the backlash never really hit, save for a disgruntled street artist or two. “The Clock” became an instant classic, a fact only further proved by the sudden rash of museum purchases (though it’s important to note that the piece was largely created with museum collectors in mind).

Why did this happen? Well, I suspect it’s because the work hit the zeitgeist squarely on the head, bringing together a YouTube-friendly format that viewers could watch for as long or short as they liked according to their attention span with a populist bed of influences that audiences could easily identify with — Marclay’s a movie buff, just like you are! Can you spot your favorite film? The combination is irresistible in the short term for its punchiness, a headline-making snappy quality that would make any work of art go viral.

Christian Marclay's “The Clock” (image via timeout.com)

But in the long term, “The Clock” also has a monumentality that’s attractive to institutions with the resources to nurture a work over decades of display. There are levels of sensitivity and complexity within the work that will take years to discover, over hundreds of repeated viewings, the process of living with the art and allowing it to develop. One Hyperallergic friend mentioned that they noticed all the scenes before the top of the hour are about anticipation, while all the scenes after the top of the hour are often about regret. These subtleties will take years of display to come to the surface.

“The Clock” entangles real and fictional time, narrative and space, creating its own reality minute by minute. It’s a monument for the era of the YouTube mash-up, a work that takes the aesthetics and possibilities of our digital world and elevates them to a higher level of experience, critical creation and critical thought. So all these museum purchases might be a fad, a hangover of the piece’s insta-popularity, rest assured, we’ll be seeing a lot of “The Clock” in the next decade of contemporary art exhibitions.

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