“The Clock” stops time in the city

By Meg Hill

“It’s always synced to real-time, so you have to come back at different times of day to see something new,” an ACMI staff member explained Christian Marclay’s The Clock to a curious homeless man.

Every time I visit The Clock, a staff member is having a similar conversation with a curious patron at the entrance.

“It’s a huge montage of scenes about time.”

“It took years to make.”

“… and it works as a clock.”

It’s showing underneath Federation Square in the ACMI basement until March, including for 24-hour stretches every Thursday. Next door Metro Tunnel is cutting through chronological layers of time from ground level.

A visit in daylight sheds time-markers as eyes adjust to an unnatural level of darkness. It’s kind of like going to the cinema as a child and expecting it to be night-time when you leave. 

So, itfeels more like stepping away from time than into any serious study of it. Or from manufactured time, at least. It’s 1pm on a Thursday and the room is packed. Don’t these people have day jobs?

Of course, not all of them do. Another homeless man was entering as I left. A meditation on time seems a tense activity for those who have far too much of it. But although they might seem fixtures of the city that grows around them, they have agency too. It’s also mid-summer and 40 degrees outside.

It’s more like moving into an editing room, where directors and producers are watching through endless options: how should people perceive and experience time? What expectations should it create? What universal norms can be inserted into a particular time of day?

Upstairs, ACMI exhibitions run through Melbourne’s history chronologically. Although The Clock is pedantically accurate on minutes and hours, it has no regard for dates. 

Some don’t see any stories in the piece, just a magnificent collage. But others assert the existence of sub plots. There’s so much there that if you’re looking for something, you can convince yourself you’ve found it.

A young De Niro yelling at his wife and upending a table over an overcooked steak in Raging Bull cuts to a scene from Three O’Clock High where an attempted show of masculinity turns into schadenfreude. Is this commentary, or just useful arrangement?

Of course, it’s impossible for The Clock to say nothing at all, there’s plenty transplanted from the originals. A slapstick scene depicts a comical way to be saved by time, with a man who falls out a of a building and hits the huge clock perched on its wall. The clock breaks and its spring, stuck on his trousers, stops his fall.

As you might expect, settings shift rapidly. Jarring cuts are softened by bleeding audio from one scene into another, like from a stormy London to a parched wild west.

One of the strongest senses the exhibition gives is that, were it not for the anonymity of darkness, you might recognise some of the other audience members. Visiting in the middle of the day, the city motions go on as normal outside, but here they seem to stop.

Anyone can walk in for a 15, 20, hour-long break and leave as they please. And if you’re on a schedule it’s an exhibition that tells you when you’re due to leave, if you’re listening.

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