Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and National Gallery of Canada Acquire Christian Marclay’s ‘The Clock’

Still from Christian Marclay’s “The Clock” (2010). Photo: Todd-White Art Photography. (Courtesy White Cube, Paula Cooper Gallery, and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Those who didn’t have time to catch Christian Marclay’s 24-hour chronological odyssey, “The Clock” (2010), when it debuted stateside earlier this year at New York’s Paula Cooper Gallery are in luck: the critically acclaimed video work has been acquired jointly by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and the National Gallery of Canada, the institutions announced this week. One of the five other editions was snapped up last month—for a reported $467,500—by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

“The Clock” is a particularly (you guessed it!) timely acquisition for the MFA, which in September will unveil the Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art, a seven-gallery showplace housed in the museum’s fully renovated I.M. Pei-designed building. Marclay’s work will have its Boston premiere on September 17 and 18, when the MFA hosts a 24-hour celebration of the new wing. “This first screening of ‘The Clock’ will be an unforgettable way to mark a new era and historic moment for the MFA’s contemporary art program,” says Jen Mergel (pictured at right), the museum’s Robert L. Beal, Enid L. Beal, and Bruce A. Beal Senior Curator of Contemporary Art. Mergel made time to answer our questions about the work, the acquisition, and how two institutions share a video (an armored truck is not involved).

How would you describe “The Clock” to someone who hasn’t seen it?
I’d have to describe what Marclay does as an artist to explain what “The Clock” is as an artwork. With his background as a pioneering DJ, Marclay samples and splices popular recordings into smart, resonant, profound new sequences of image and sound. For “The Clock” Marclay assembles thousands of film and TV clips that include watches, clocktowers, sundials, alarm clocks, countdowns, and more into a 24-hour cycle of footage that, scene by scene, breaks films’ narrative time but keeps the local time on screen, in sync with the local time zone wherever it is shown. So in “The Clock,” when a famous actor in a sci-fi clip launches a rocket at 11:59, another in a western meets for a duel at high noon, and another in a thriller catches a train at 12:01, you can be sure that these scenes and all of the clips in between will always accurately match the passage from a.m. to p.m., wherever it is shown.

So what is “The Clock”? It’s fair to say it’s a paradox: it’s both a working timepiece and a time capsule, it at once breaks chronology to redefine chronology, and it takes time as it gives time. It’s a space where worlds collide but never meet as they keep marching forward.

What made this work a must-have for the MFA (and the NGC)?
With the MFA’s nationally renowned film program offering over 500 screenings a year, we couldn’t imagine a more fitting complement in our collection than Marclay’s brilliant sampling of the past century of film history in his single cinematic masterpiece. But it’s much more than an homage to film’s past. It’s a work that literally affirms the present, marking time minute-by-minute, in a cycle that can continue into the future.

At the MFA, contemporary art can be seen in direct dialogue with art of past cultures, so Marclay’s creation of a new video through direct reference to prior films emphatically reinforces this integral link between art of then and now.

How do two institutions “share” a video work?
It’s very straightforward actually. In this case, each institution receives its own computer hard drive with the 24-hour video file (and each also receives a backup.) Working together, we establish a schedule for taking turns to show the work, so our shared edition is never on view in more than one place at a time. Unlike a jointly owned painting or sculpture, there is no shipping back and forth between owners, so it is very practical. And the best part: as this edition is owned by two institutions instead of one, it’s that much easier for both to share this amazing work of art with international audiences.