Monday, September 05, 2011

The Clock, by Christian Marclay

The Clock, by Christian Marclay

Paris, September 2011

I had decided to visit Anais in Paris in one of her between-boyfriend periods. She's one of those women who gets a boyfriend and then vanishes. After they break up, she emerges from her cave, shields her eyes from the sun, and starts calling and messaging her friends. I always know when she's single because she 'likes' my blog posts and writes to me. This autumn seemed to be one of her out-of-cave periods, so what better time?

"What do you want to do when you get here?" asked Anais, "Because there's an exhibition about clocks. This Gnarles Barkley guy took bits of movies about time and sliced them all together. And it's all synchronised with the actual time. It seems amazing." It sounded like the perfect thing to see in Paris and complain about. I wrote, "That sounds pretentious and annoying. What could be more French? Let's do it." "I'm never talking to you again EVER," she wrote back.

I arrived late on Friday. French cuisine is the best in the world, I am often told, mostly by French people. Anais chucked a frozen pizza in the oven. Don't get me wrong, I was grateful. But if you want to dispel the myth that French food is inherently good, then eat a French frozen pizza.

On Saturday morning we went to the The Clock exhibition at the Pompidou. My plan was to watch it for ten minutes, pacify Anais, and then go outside and make fun of the French. The installation was like a cinema - screen at front, dark, every sound and movement annoying. There were a few comfy chairs in the middle, all occupied, and a few people sitting on the sides and at the back.

There were a few clips from movies and TV shows - Patrick McGoohan looking at his watch, De Niro in uniform barking orders in front of a clock, someone asking Chris Rock 'what's the time?' After a few minutes I realised that The Clock exhibit was exactly as Anais had described. 24 hours of mini slices of film history, painstakingly researched, sliced into place, and at times skilfully juxtaposed (one man knocks on door, a different man in a different movie enters). I had a mental image of the artist rolling into bars bleary-eyed and scoring chicks through his use of the words 'concept', 'movie', 'project' and 'installation'. My derision levels started to rise.

But... but somehow it was... ace! I felt bad about enjoying the horrid pretentious French art, but I couldn't help it! Fortunately, it wasn't French. Christian Marclay is Swiss-American. So that was better. But it was still a silly post-modern concept taken to a ludicrous extreme. Why was I having fun?

First, on a superficial level, you can play the game of naming the movies and TV shows. I'd seen loads more than Anais. [Presumably she only watches movies which are a) four hours long b) in French and c) about a man who lives in a box, where the box is a metaphor for Jacques Chirac's foreign policy.] In the first five minutes, I recognised Mission Impossible (the TV one), Minority Report, and loads more.

Next, a lot of the clips are dramatic. At three o'clock a woman will lose her house. At three oh two, some tense criminals will jump into action. At three oh four James Bond will try to disarm a bomb. Time, time, time! Merciless, uncaring, implacable. Accompanied by great acting. Sigh...

Then you've got a roll call of Hollywood A-listers through the ages. We saw Johnny Depp, William Shatner, Nick Cage and Cher, that guy with the broken nose from the 50s, the guy who did the voice on Thriller, John Cleese, everyone! You see a young Mel Gibson and an old John Wayne. Cinephile joy!

There's always something happening so you have no time to think 'what might come next'? But sometimes The Clock rewards your instincts - I hoped to see something from Back to the Future, and was moderately thrilled when I saw Marty and Doc next to the big clock in 1855. 

And Anais and I had seen the movie Jumper when she'd visited me in Prague. And there it was, right there on the screen! Hayden Christensen standing at the base of Big Ben holding an umbrella. Romantic or what? If you're into that kind of thing.

And, of course, there's the artistic merit of the piece. I don't want to encourage these mad artists by praising their demented concepts, but I'll make an exception here. The importance of time, the ubiquity of watches, electronic timepieces, clocks, and time - you don't leave the exhibit without thinking about it all. We live and die, bathed in time.

I'd expected to hate The Clock, yet was mesmerised. But we were both hungry. "Let's go get some food, then come back and watch it for ages," I said. In Anais's mind, that was probably the sexiest thing I'd ever said. However, it seems Anais and I don't appreciate art in quite the same way. Every time a new 'minute' came on screen, she checked her phone to see if the time matched. That's what an education in La Sorbonne gets you!

We left, and ate.

Pizza Hut was full, so we tried the Frenchest place we could find, Le Escargot. After being asked to move table (from a table for four to a smaller table, even though the place was almost empty) I had a mediocre walnut salad followed by a tough beef blob with a bit of cheese on top. Served with American fries. I'd have been underwhelmed to get that in a pub in Moss Side. But yeah, French food is great. Best in the world. Etc.

After that, we strolled back to the Pompidou hoping to spend a while watching time go by in dreamy fashion. "Christ!" I whinged, "Look at the queue! What's that all about?" It seemed the snobby French cultural elite had been spreading the news - Clocks was both en vogue and de rigeur. "Stupid French snobs! Let's come back later."

We went, and went back, and realised we'd had very good timing in the morning. The queue was longer than ever. I drank a 1664 Blanc and joined the stupid bloody French queue in a foul mood. At least three thousand bloody rude French people tried to jump the line. The greatest living Frenchman is the guy who works at the front of that line. He shrugged at would-be pushers-in, and wagged his fingers at people who would pull a fast one. For me, at least, it was love at first shrug.

After a painful wait, we got inside and watched more time. It was brilliant. We watched more than an hour, which makes The Clock at least fifty-nine minutes more interesting than most pieces of art I've ever seen.

Then, we ate again. My starter was extraordinary, but the meat in my main course was dry and the cocktail was odd. Nice place, though.

Sunday, back at the Pompidou, hungry to see more time on screen, we were disconcerted to find coachloads of people milling around. It took a full minute for me to realise what I was seeing - the queue now stretched from inside, through the front doors, and out into the big plaza, where it doubled back on itself. Christ on a bike! There were about six hundred people waiting!

I didn't want to wait three hours to see the thing. Maybe the artist would put it on the internet or something. It would, genuinely, be one of my favourite websites if he did.

Before I left Paris, Anais took me to have crepes. Merde! My 'chopped steak' was a hamburger, clearly cooked from frozen, and my crepe was as dry and tasteless as my waitress was hot and sultry. Next time someone tells me how great French food is, I'm going to give them both barrels of my shotgun of scorn. And next time someone tells me about some mental art that's going on, I'll think twice before dismissing it.

If The Clock is showing in your town, eat, drink, go to the toilet, and spend a good many hours there.

1 comment:

  1. I'd heard about this exhibition before, I'd love to see it. Hopefully it will come to Zürich since the artist is half Swiss.
    About the food: French cuisine IS the best in the world! Of course if you go to shitty touristy places to order hamburger you ought to be disappointed! It's funny though cause I was in London recently and enjoyed my food there. Even the English stuff.


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