Christian Marclay and Rirkrit Tiravanija play with time

Christian Marclay The Clock 2010 Single channel video Duration: 24 hours Christian Marclay The Clock 2010 Single channel video Duration: 24 hours - © the artist Courtesy White Cube
Posted: Mon Nov 1 2010

Fragments of screen time made real and real time on screen, in shows by artists Christian Marclay and Rirkrit Tiravanija

'Time of death: one eighteen,' announces the handsome young doctor in a clip from an old episode of 'ER'. If you check the actual time - as you lounge on the comfy sofas in White Cube's darkened basement - you'll find that he's absolutely spot-on. Likewise when the clocktower in the Coen brothers' 'Hudsucker Proxy', strikes five, or when Charlie Chaplin in 'Modern Times' punches out for lunch just before noon - or in any of the thousands upon thousands of seamlessly edited clips of clocks or close-ups of wristwatches that make up Christian Marclay's film-projection, 'The Clock' - whatever time is expressed up on screen corresponds exactly to real, local time.

The whole film functions, literally, as a sort of clock: a veritable time-piece, marking off every minute of every hour for the duration of an entire day. The term 'magnum opus' doesn't tend to get used much for new art, but surely if anything warrants the description it's Marclay's piece - the product of close to three years' work, and quite simply the most grandiose statement of the American artist's sampling aesthetic to date.

The central concept, certainly, is grand: the relentless passage of time, the moments of reality that infiltrate cinematic fantasy. Presumably, the idea is to instil in the viewer a kind of temporal awareness, a sense of mortality, even. And yet, if this really is Marclay's aim, then his decision to use sampled film clips backfires. Ultimately, the sheer spectacle of it all, the pleasure of recognizing cinematic episodes, becomes so distracting that there's no time for serious contemplation. 'The Clock', for all its technical proficiency, ends up simply as the artistic equivalent of one of those TV-clip shows, an exercise in viewing nostalgia.

As such, it's interesting to compare Marclay's work to another piece currently at the nearby Pilar Corrias Gallery that also, with what could be called perfect timing, explores issues to do with real-time representation. In many ways, 'Lung Neaw', by Rikrit Tiravanija, is the opposite of Marclay's film. Rather than thousands of different shots, there's only one, continuous, fixed-position take, quietly depicting the elderly features of an eponymous, Thai man filmed on the outskirts of Chang Mai. And rather than providing escapist entertainment, watching Tiravanija's film is actually rather excruciating - an endurance test to rival Warhol's famous, single shot of the Empire State Building, but with the additional challenge that the subject of the film stares back at you, apparently able to bear this weight of time with consummate ease.

Not that Tiravanija's film lasts a full 24 hours. Instead, the timeframe here is a working day, the final fade-to-black coinciding with the gallery shutting up shop. This suggests that Tiravanija - a foremost practitioner of so-called 'relational' art, in which notions of social relations are foregrounded - is trying to frame some sort of fundamental contrast between our Western, working lives and that of 'Uncle' Neaw, who certainly doesn't ever seem to do much except blink, nod or scratch his head, and purse his lips expressively.

Of course, it's not possible to verify what happens for the whole duration - for all I know, in between my various visits, there are moments when Tiravanija's old man suddenly gets up and dances a jig. Yet this sense of missed moments is also integral to the experience of any real-time work of art - particularly so with Marclay's film, where a good two-thirds of the footage, between 6pm and 10am, correlates to times when galleries are closed, and therefore remains generally unseen - apart, that is, from occasional, special all-night viewings. According to rumours, the whole thing builds to a spectacular crescendo around midnight.

All of which shows just how susceptible any lengthy, real-time experience is to being shaped by hearsay and memory, by feelings of expectancy and frustration. In that sense, the most astute piece of all is another day-long work by Tiravanija, showing downstairs at Pilar Corrias: not a film, but a series of 35mm slide projections, in which the gallery director, Corrias herself, stands at Speaker's Corner and writes statements on a chalkboard describing a previous working day. The correlation between description and duration varies, so that while 'I look at my emails for 2 minutes' seems to last about two minutes, 'I take a taxi to the Tate for 25 minutes' certainly doesn't last 25. Yet it's precisely such slippages and dislocations that make the work so engaging.

As a slide-piece, the work can't claim to reflect real-time; but with its sense of uncertainty, its suggestion of the malleability of memory, it offers a more realistic portrayal of how most of us, in everyday life, actually tend to experience the passage of time.