Christian Marclay at White Cube’s storage space in London
Christian Marclay at White Cube’s storage space in London
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Last spring, I was wandering the streets of central Paris with some hours to kill when I began to feel unwell. Nothing serious, just the feeling that a virus had taken hold and was biding its time to strike more meaningfully. I was near the Pompidou Centre and decided to take refuge there for a while, to take the weight off my feet and put some art into my head. As I turned the corner into the square, my spirits soared. There was a massive poster in front of me for Christian Marclay’s “The Clock”, which had returned to the Pompidou after its successful run there in 2011. This, I knew, would put me right.

I had seen parts of “The Clock” when it opened at London’s White Cube gallery four years earlier. Marclay’s 24-hour video installation instantly became the cultural talk of the town. It even made the BBC’s Ten O’Clock News, the straight-talking nightly bulletin that gives short shrift to the flaky experiments of contemporary art. But the allure of “The Clock” was irresistible.

Marclay’s looped video put together thousands of pieces of film, each of which featured a clock or watch showing the time. The video itself was shown in real time: so if you were watching Grace Kelly looking at her watch to see that the time was 11.13 in the morning, it really was 11.13 in the morning. You were away from the real world, yet temporally embedded in it.

The result was both hypnotising and stimulating: you lost track of time at the same time as becoming obsessed by its passing. I spent three hours in the projection room, left for a quick coffee, and returned for another hour and a half. I finally, and reluctantly, left “The Clock” in fine fettle, disoriented but curiously uplifted. For the rest of the evening, I couldn’t stop looking at my watch, out of newfound respect for its relentlessness.

Marclay’s work won the Golden Lion at the 2011 Venice Biennale, going on to attract widespread acclaim. Editions of the film have been bought by major museums, including Tate and the Pompidou, which own a joint copy, and it is permanently in demand throughout the world, the contemporary art equivalent of Bob Dylan’s never-ending world tour. Hundreds of thousands have seen parts of it, and all who I have met want to return to see the parts they have missed.

I ask Marclay, who turned 60 this month, to remind me, as we talk inside the imposing spaces of White Cube’s Bermondsey gallery, how long it took to make “The Clock”. “Three years,” he says, not a little wearily. He cuts an ascetic figure, tall, slim and quietly spoken. Contemporary art does not always look like it requires gargantuan levels of research, concentration and dedication but “The Clock” is an exception, and you can see it in Marclay’s demeanour when his masterpiece is brought up.

How, he may be wondering, do you follow something like “The Clock”? He is back in London for his new White Cube show, which opens on January 28. It consists of a dizzying variety of tones, styles and genres: there are paintings, works on paper, live performances, animation and video. We look down the gallery’s long corridor, which will become an installation, “Pub Crawl”, devoted to the infamous British pastime.

Marclay’s 2010 video installation ‘The Clock’
White Cube gallery

Marclay, California-born and raised in Geneva, has lived on and off in London for the past seven years, and says he is fascinated by the rituals, and the detritus, of late-night drinking. He shot a series of early-morning films in the east of the city, illustrating the effects of all those nights-before. Sometimes, he says excitedly, he would see the same glass on a window sill for several days in succession. The films will play simultaneously in the gallery.

He takes me to another room, which he says will be darkened and insulated. In the silence, a series of animated onomatopoeic words — POP! FRZZAAT! KLA-BOOM! SKREEEE! — will zip around the gallery on a loop. It is a bombardment of sound, without any sound. “I think of it as a piece of music but silent, it is purely in your mind,” says Marclay. There is a row of assistants sitting behind computer screens still working on the new piece, “Surround Sounds”. “It is a fully visual experience but, hopefully, people will hear things in a weird kind of way [‘weird’ is one of Marclay’s favourite words]. It has this interesting hybrid quality, between a sound and an image.”

In yet another gallery, there are some large “action” paintings, featuring the same kinds of onomatopoeic words, this time painted or printed on canvas, against random splatters of paint. Marclay describes them as “paintings which might have been done by action heroes. Unfortunately, action heroes don’t paint, they are more destructive.” There is an art historical joke at play here. The paintings are an amalgamation of two artistic archetypes: the abstract expressionism of action paintings, and the zippy Pop Art that superseded it. “It is nice to dialogue with history, to take it somewhere else,” says Marclay.

Finally, there is the musical element of the show. Marclay’s art has long experimented with the relationship between sound and image. Every weekend at the gallery, there will be concerts by the London Sinfonietta, performing pieces by “non-traditional” composers. On Saturdays, there will be “surprise” guests, “if any of my musician friends are in town”. The performances will be recorded and, in another gallery, a portable vinyl pressing machine created by the Vinyl Factory will make instant records out of them, while a screen printer will make the covers.

“I’ve always done weird things with records,” says Marclay. “They have this powerful symbolic value. It is something that is obsolete, yet keeps being appropriated by younger generations. There is a physicality about it that they like. Records would appear to be dead — but I have been saying that for the last 10 years.” Marclay’s concentration here on process rather than result is typical of 21st-century artistic practice and helps explain why he is one of the most fashionable artists of the moment.

He says he has never been a fully fledged record collector of the type who trawl endlessly in shops for rare recordings. “I have always fought that collecting instinct. I bought comic books and never read them, just cut them up and used them in my work. If you get too fanatical, you can’t pull your scissors out. It gave me a lot more freedom.”

By coincidence, a few miles into central London, a bona fide rock star, British singer-songwriter P J Harvey, is also dedicating herself to the art of record making in unusual surrounds. Her new album — the follow-up to 2011’s moving, literate Let England Shake — is being recorded in an architectural installation in Somerset House that has been built to be her recording studio. It is surrounded by one-way glass, and visitors are being invited to come and watch proceedings. The work, “Recording in Progress”, is commissioned by Artangel, and it has already sold out.

PJ Harvey at ‘Recording in Progress’, London
PJ Harvey at ‘Recording in Progress’, London

I visited the studio on the first day of recording and became instantly absorbed, watching Harvey and her band putting together a verse from one of her new songs, “The Chain of Keys”. The atmosphere is relaxed, professional, warm. “Are you doing it in major or minor?” one member of the band asks another. “I’m not doing majors or minors, I’m doing fifths,” he replies, and they chuckle a little conspiratorially. It is easy to imagine that they are flaunting private jokes before the public, but equally easy to think they are not thinking about the public at all. The same segment of music is rehearsed about a dozen times, in slightly different ways, and we are all bundled out to be replaced by another group of observers.

Harvey has said that she chose the venue — Somerset House is a former tax office and was also once a royal residence — for its “resonance”. She writes in the catalogue: “All that history will fuel me and help tap into a different level of consciousness . . . You’re in the heart of the city, and by the artery of the river.” She says she is both “excited and scared” to be working in front of spectators: “I hope people will see the attention and the labour and the care that goes into making a recording. I hope people will see the interactions between everyone involved.”

When did the medium become more important than the message? Philosopher Marshall McLuhan theorised about the relationship between the two half a century ago — but it is only today that we seem to be truly fascinated by the processes involved in the creation of contemporary art and music, rather than their end result. Nor is this just some philosophical conceit; it extends to the lowest level of popular culture: what are the TV talent shows The X Factor and The Voice if not obsessed by the starmaker machinery of pop, rather than the music itself?

There are two reasons for this shift in emphasis. The first is technology. When something moves as fast and as all-consumingly as the digital revolution, it leaves us in its thrall. Our mobile devices sparkle more seductively than what they are transmitting. The speed of information has more of a rush than the most breakneck Ramones single.

Digital tools also enable the past to be appropriated in thrilling new forms — “The Clock” would not have been possible in an analogue age. Marclay has said he developed calluses on his fingers from his work in the editing suite, echoing the injuries once suffered by the hoariest blues guitarists. “The Clock” is a reassemblage of found objects: that is not a new phenomenon in artistic practice, but never has it been taken to such popular and imaginative heights.

It is the art of the beginnings of the digital age: not something entirely new, but a reordering of great, integral works of the past. “A record is so tangible,” says Marclay when I ask him about his vinyl fixation. “A sound file is nothing.” Sometimes, I say, it feels as if he has taken all the passions of my youth — records, movies, comic books — and thrown them all in the air, fitting them back together with technical bravura and, in so doing, investing them with new, hidden meanings. I ask if his art is essentially nostalgic. “I don’t think it is,” he replies firmly. “But there is a sense of comfort there. These are things we grew up with. They are familiar. And that is literally the right word: they are family.”

The second, less palatable, reason for the medium to overshadow the message is because of a loss of cultural confidence. We are not sure that the end result of whatever it is we are producing with such spectacular technological support can ever get much better than Pet Sounds, or Casablanca, or early Spider-Man. This does lead to nostalgia; not just for the old messages but for the old media, too. Marclay tells me there is a cultish following for audio cassettes, as if the alchemy of that far-from-perfect technology will help reproduce the magic of its age.

We talk of late 1970s New York, which Marclay visited from Boston, where he was a student. It was, culturally speaking, a golden age: punk, minimalism, street art, hip-hop, performance art, video; cheap lofts and big dreams. “I was very lucky,” he recalls. “I had a super-cheap apartment in the East Village and all the neighbours were artists.” Then Manhattan cleaned up and got expensive. “It’s going through a pretty stiff phase right now. It’s all about money and entertainment,” he says.

It is the sounds and images of those days that still have surprising currency today, as they are twisted and manipulated into new directions. As Christian Marclay’s most famous work reminds us, time passes, while also returning to the same place, over and over again. Art can be captured, momentarily, in the studio, the gallery, the theatre. But then it breaks free, and does what it wants.

Christian Marclay is at White Cube Bermondsey, January 28 to April 18.

Photographs: Greg Funnell; Seamus Murphy; White Cube gallery

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