Punching in the time clock

Not too long ago a young man named Sam Hsieh created a work of art in protest of job routine, otherwise known as the "daily grind," also known as the old "9 to 5."

Mr. Hsieh's tools were as follows: one time clock; a 16-millimeter camera; a wristwatch alarm, with microphone and loudspeaker.

Once an hour, 24 hours a day for a year Mr. Hsieh punched a timecard into his time clock in his New York apartment. Each time he repeated this act -- 8,760 times in all -- he photographed himself on a frame of film. The amplified wristwatch alarm woke him up on the hour -- most of the time. He was tardy in 131 cases.

To give a bit of variety to the film, Mr. Hsieh shaved his head in the beginning and during the course of the year allowed his hair to grow out.

The timecards were witnessed by a friend each day and sealed in plastic.

When, at the end of the year, the film was run off for guests, lasting about six minutes in all, the entertainment proved so popular that it had to be repeated again -- though not 8,760 times.

Mr. Hsieh explained his artistic statement to a Wall Street Journal reporter thus: "Punching a time clock is my symbol for work. Most working people do the same boring things over and over again."

We've been thinking about Mr. Hsieh's work of art -- oh, maybe 8 1/2 times a week -- and we're not sure whether, in fact, he is protesting against work or against time itself. After all, even if Mr. Hsieh were relieved of the nasty Philistine obligation to punch in, the clock would tick on. And if Mr. Hsieh were included to accept those infernal ticks as an absolute measure, he would feel himself under a worse slavery. For in Adam's expulsion from Eden the final punishment was not forced labor but the presumed loss of eternity.

Does this mean that Mr. Hsieh should throw away his punch card and restrict his attack to the clock? Not really. To protest so literally against the clock would be to give it an authority it does not deserve. The clock is not the enemy any more than the punch card. Clocks and watches are artifacts themselves -- the imaginative creations of other artists. The English novelist J. B. Priestley recalled that grandfather clocks appeared to him as a child to be impersonating grandfathers. In their dignified presence -- all Roman numerals, polished brass, and well-oiled wood -- grandfather clocks certainly go far beyond their function of timekeeping. Or as Priestley put it, "These never seemed mere mechanisms."

The essayist William Hazlitt thought his favorite sundial outside of Venice, reading Horas non numero nisi serenasm ("I count only the hours that are serene") actually celebrated a triumph over time. The "softness and harmony in the words and in the thought" he found to be "unparalleled."

The French philosopher Henri Bergson believed there is an inner time quite at variance with chronological time, and one of his readers, Marcel Proust, grounded his fiction in this perception of a time that clocks cannot measure.

The most exalted artists and mystics have always suspected that time, no less than matter, is subject to optical illusion. Plato called time "the moving image of eternity." And since Einstein, physicists have found time "relative," with odd little curves that confound a linear tick-tick.

For these and other reasons we take Mr. Hsieh's art to be an avant-garde gesture informed by a 19th-century idea. If anybody cares for a truly contemporary work of art about time, we recommend Harold Lloyd in a silent film that would fit nicely into Mr. Hsieh's projector. Acting out one of those nightmares silent comedians used to favor, Lloyd found himself holding onto the minute hand of a clock on a public building, perhaps 30 stories above the street. Lloyd's face looked rather like an astonished clock itself.

We can still see the minute hand, with the comedian on it, revolving in a wild mockery of chronology. We've never been able to take time quite seriously since.

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