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A momentary scene from Christian Marclay's "The Clock" (handout)
A momentary scene from Christian Marclay's "The Clock" (handout)

Visual arts

National Gallery acquires 'maybe the greatest film you have ever seen' Add to ...

For the first time in its 131-year history, the National Gallery of Canada has partnered with another institution to acquire an art work. It's not a Caravaggio painting or Serra sculpture or suite of heretofore unknown Andy Warhol silkscreens. It's a video.

Not just any "ordinary" video, mind you. The Clock runs for 24 consecutive hours, and is composed of thousands of samples, some lasting only seconds, others minutes, culled from hundreds of films, famous and obscure, into a seamless whole by renowned U.S.-born sound and video artist Christian Marclay.

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What makes The Clock audacious is not just its collage-like use of clips from films of all genres, time periods and cultures; it's that all its imagery is rigorously synchronized, often overtly, occasionally obliquely, to real time, to the time in whichever community the installation is playing. Thus, when you see the clip from the 1923 silent film Safety Last of Harold Lloyd hanging from a clock reading 2:45 in the afternoon, you can be assured that cinematic time is "converging" with the real time on your wristwatch. All movies, of course, take place in time, compressed time - but how many actually function like a clock?

Other samples used by Marclay include Daniel Craig in Casino Royale, Christopher Walken in Pulp Fiction, Peter Fonda in Easy Rider, Orson Welles in The Stranger and, of course, Gary Cooper in High Noon.

Almost 10 years in the research and preparation, The Clock has been an art-world sensation since its premiere installation at London's influential White Cube gallery last October. British novelist Zadie Smith calls it "maybe the greatest film you have ever seen."

Only six editions of the single-channel video have been produced for sale, which has spurred intense interest and negotiations by and among museums worldwide. This week, the National Gallery in Ottawa is announcing that it will be one of the owners of The Clock, having reached a deal with the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston to acquire joint ownership. No purchase price has been revealed, although The Los Angeles Times reported last month that the only other confirmed institutional buyer to date , the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, had paid $450,000 (U.S.).

Whatever the price, it is known that the Museum of Fine Arts' stake is being put up by long-time Boston collectors and philanthropists Lizbeth and George Krupp, who first saw The Clock during its run in London. The National Gallery's equity will come from its art-acquisitions budget (it totals about $8-million annually) and, possibly, from a Canadian collector, who was unidentified at press time. Boston will show The Clock first, in September to mark the opening of a new wing for contemporary art at the museum. The National Gallery will do its first screenings in 2012, with the dates to be determined.

While joint ownership of art is relatively common in the U.S., it's rare in Canada. In the case of The Clock, the National Gallery approached White Cube about an outright purchase after Marc Mayer, director of the Ottawa gallery, and Jonathan Shaughnessy, associate curator of contemporary art, expressed their enthusiasm. But because of the huge demand and limited supply, White Cube suggested that the National might wish to team with another institution. "Boston, when that was brought up in name, became a logical fit," Shaughnessy said. Edward Saywell, chair of contemporary art at the Museum of Fine Art, said in an e-mail that he is "thrilled" to be "sharing the work with such a prestigious national institution."

How audiences see the piece is carefully managed by the artist. During its run in Manhattan earlier this year, Marclay specified that the Paul Cooper Gallery had to seat viewers on 12 IKEA couches, all three-seaters, all dyed light grey. Shaughnessy indicated that a similar "rationale" probably will be used for The Clock's presentation at the National Gallery of Canada. "We at the National Gallery are usually quite respectful of those issues by artists and work closely with them."

Shaughnessy added that watching The Clock "is almost transcendent," or at least it was for him. "I don't mean to get spiritual about it, but there's something epic going on here. ... It's like all your cinematic experiences put together into one viewing session."

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