Monday, May 16, 2011

Beat The Clock And Go Back In Time With The Mourners

Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say. (Edgar in King Lear).

This morning at 11 AM, LACMA has started the projection of The Clock, its recent acquisition of a Christian Marclay video that was all the hype in NYC a few weeks back. It's free, the projection lasts 24 hours, and you can drop it pretty much anytime you want. Since last week, the event has been hyped all over LA, to the point that some of my acquaintances who aren't into contemporary art were planning to go see it (hi, Mike!).
As Los Angeles still cannot cope with its inferiority complex toward New York City, the hype has been repeated all over the various local media outlets and social networks over the weekend, prompting us not to miss it.  Or else... what?

As you may know, The Clock is a montage of various film and television snippets all depicting images or representations of time passing by, by the minute, for a total duration of 24 hours, starting from 11 AM onwards.
Hence, when the movie projection commences, the viewers are perfectly in sync with the film and can see the time passing by minute by minute, whether there's a watch, a clock, or simply a character telling what time it is.
In terms of technique, The Clock is a brilliant display of editing mastery and obsessive research.  Each minute is illustrated by however many seconds of one or several movies make use of the temporal duration that says "it is 11.30", that is, if there are several snippets that tell the viewer "it is 11.30" they will be edited to altogether last the 60 seconds that constitute that 30th minute.
The movies excerpts don't focus on Western cinema only, thank God (or more likely, thank Christian Marclay), and are sometimes repeated when part of their plot revolves around a specific period of time passing by.

Before I went this morning I was somewhat prejudiced against the concept of The Clock, because the whole idea of taking samples from Pop culture and stretching them to 24 hours sounded so much like what Douglas Gordon would have made around 1993. Big yawn. For the record, I am not a big fan of Gordon whom I think is a wildly uneven artist, not himself a stranger to being over-hyped, and whose work is, for me, much more interesting when it veers away from video and cinema.
Christian Marclay, on another hand, interested me more as a sound and music artist making  installations  - I really like his telephone pieces  - and so his new venture into the representation of time in popular culture might have been a good way for him to jump from being a solid artist to becoming a  significant one. Because these times are very devoid of significant artists, I feel.

The concept of duration  and the passing of time through film pieces has been stretched to death with experimental movies of the late 1960s and early 1970s (just think about Andy Warhol and Michael Snow) so I didn't really see what The Clock could add to it, but I was  open to being pleasantly surprised. Maybe the sampling and editing would be incredibly meaningful, maybe there would be some big reveal about Cinema With A Big C, etc.

Instead, complete boredom. The first few minutes makes you realize how good the editing is, what a clever technical feat is being played, but after that it becomes a gimmick and as such excruciatingly boring. Time does stretch and every single occurrence that tells you "it's 11.08", "oh my, it must be about 11.15", etc., etc. makes you want to get the hell out of here.
There isn't any phenomenological epiphany through the movie that makes you experience the concept of "duration", just a mundane experience of boredom. You start noticing that indeed, British actors do know how to act, unlike their US counterparts, but alas it is only 11.23 and how long this thing is supposed to last already?
Oh yes, I can see how stereotypical the representation of women is into all these snippets, didn't I know this already? Damn, only 11.24. By 11.25 what you really notice is how freezing it is in the Bing Theater, while you have some vague recognition of the plot of the snippet being played.  Oh, time as a narrative device. How clever. Bet you've never thought of that one. 11.27 and  on screen someone's set to die soonish. Incredible. I feel time passing by! Dammit, I totally needed a movie to remind me of, say (and totally randomly) being bored to death in math class when I was 13 and how loooooooong the minutes were. The problem is, boring can be fabulous if it grates. If it changes your perception of things. If it makes you reconsider everything else made in the artistic field in a new light.

Sitting through the entire projection of Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz is boring and grating and challenging and groundbreaking (yes I've done it). Watching 8 hours of the light slowly (very slowly) changing on the Empire State Building in Warhol's Empire is boring and infuriatingly beautiful (yes, I've done that too). Getting dizzy through the 3 hours that make Snow's La Région Centrale is incredibly boring and mind-boggling and earth-shattering (and yes, I've done that too. Twice). Sitting though The Clock is as boring as watching daytime television. It's not because it's experienced daily by millions of people that it will change your world whatsoever.

The audience, judging from the enthusiastic blurts I've seen on Twitter, is purely there to challenge itself about how long it can stay watching the movie (I've seen breathless tweets such as "5 hours!"), an endearing feeling I guess, while others were really into small details about the sets, the costumes, laughing about how cell phones looked like in 1980s movies, etc. Someone tweeted about "time, art and film merged together", as if, say, Warhol had never done that, or anybody else for that matter.
My feeling was that most people who went to see The Clock didn't know jack shit about video art, experimental movies, contemporary art and so forth. Which is OK, and I don't resent the audience for its lack of culture. In that respect, I just want to be clear that I'm all for museums attracting all types of new people with not very good artworks if needed, if they serve as a gateway to harder drugs, so if the same people who came today end up sitting at weekends festivals at the Anthology Film Archives in New York, bless LACMA and its new 500K purchase.
Unfortunately, The Clock is nowhere in the league of landmark contemporary art films that might be shown at AFA, such as Michael Snow's La Région Centrale.  Chris Marker's La Jetée it ain't. Nor Andy Warhol's EmpireThe Clock isn't a masterpiece, but one of those middlebrow crowd-pleasers that isn't challenging and won't change the course of art history.

And that would be perfectly OK and appropriate and even fabulous if only LACMA had decided to couple the showing of its new toy with a real, week-long festival about experimental film and video. Instead of jumping on the opportunity to actually educate its public of ladies-who-lunch and donors by showing that, yes, The Clock could be seen in this tradition and even though it is not the masterpiece of the genre, at least it benefits from its history, and it's not entirely cut-off from the Hollywood tradition; LACMA decided to stay in the bland, safe, neutral zone where middlebrow art is only about entertainment and hype.
And that is the problem with hyping up The Clock as the latest great thing to happen at LACMA, instead of educating its audience.
It's a missed opportunity, and one that makes the likelihood of acquiring real masterpieces and meaningful works of art that are actually groundbreaking less and less possible. In that regard, LACMA more or less places itself in the same category as sanitized contemporary media. There is nothing challenging or courageous or even historical about acquiring The Clock or any artwork that is so deliberately easy on its audience.

In short, The Clock is one of these brilliantly superficial piece of work that has no meaningful depth to it, unless you count some undergrad "questioning of the concept of time" as an interesting problematic in an artwork made in 2011. In that case, I advise you to look for a good history of experimental cinema and video art and plow through it, and I guaranty you will have some phenomenological epiphany, once you get to see the movies in real life.  And if "brilliantly superficial  piece of work that has no meaningful depth to it" is your way of life, I suggest you start reading Bret Easton Ellis pronto. He invented the genre almost 30 years ago. And maybe in that way it is only fitting Marclay's piece would end up in Los Angeles, but is it really LACMA's role to reinforce cultural stereotypes like this?

A note on the presentation: I've been wondering why LACMA chose to do a projection between a Monday and a Tuesday, when a weekend would have been much more appropriate for working people to get a chance to see it, the whole 24 hours of it if they want to, if, as the PR wants us to believe, The Clock isn't to be missed. I haven't checked if The Clock is supposed to "happen" between a Monday and a Tuesday, so maybe that is the reason.
If no, my guess isn't that they wanted unemployed layabouts, ladies who lunch and homeless people to communally and democratically enjoy art together, but that paying the guards and AV people overtime is more expensive on the weekend.
That, or maybe the real film programs were already decided months in advance and that was the only slot available.
Speaking of which, this is a great movie week at LACMA with the Terrence Malick retrospective, and tomorrow afternoon's showing of Orson Welles' Magnificent Ambersons. I highly recommend you go watch these, if you like cinema.

If you indeed pop by LACMA to experience The Clock - and I think you should, so you can see for yourself what I'm talking about - I strongly recommend that you go next door to the Bing to see a gem of a beautiful little exhibition, The Mourners. Unlike The Clock, this show is unlikely to be repeated again any time soon, and unlike The Clock it will make you feel pure beauty in the depiction of the ultimate human experience, death.
The Mourners shows medieval sculptures from the 14th/15th century coming from the Chartreuse de Champmol in Dijon, France, home to the Dukes of Bourgogne, then the most powerful aristocratic family in Europe. As such, they hired the best artists to create their tombstones, and used Claus Sluter to carve the magnificent sculptures of small pallbearers and mourners crying and grieving, that were used to support the tomb slab itself.

 Sluter, one of only a handful of medieval sculptors whose name has survived the passing of time, has created a type of sculpture that is a horizontal slab without a pedestal, with a negative space in between the ground (where the body is buried) and the tombstone, while the mourners act as graceful supporting beams*. Each one of the sculpture is individualized, and has a different expression.  What you see in this small show is the complete series of mourners (without the rest of the architectural structure, which remains in France), displayed in the same sequence as in the original sculpture.
 The display is very sober and restrained, as befits a subject such as death and mourning, with a beautiful lighting that really helps magnifying the expressions of the mourners.

If you go see the show, and I really, really recommend you do, I advise to pick up the catalog too. It's an excellent scholarly one including great comparisons with other types of medieval sculptures and tombstones of the time, and the images are top notch. Every single mourner is represented, so you get a chance to remember their extraordinary look without having to buy a plane ticket to Dijon to see them again. Well, I guess you can do that, too.

I really wish LACMA would advertise the Mourners exhibition and spend some PR money on it, because if you really want to experience what the passing of time means in term of  duration (of art), death and, yes, resurrection through art, you will be much more likely to have a transcendental experience with a 700 year-old sculpture that is incomplete to boot, than with the lukewarm 24 hour compilation of  Pop culture's greatest hits that is The Clock.

*if you go see the show and browse through the catalog in the adjoining room, you will understand the architectural and sculptural structure better.

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