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In ticking of ‘The Clock,’ a parallel to Brexit's relentless grind

Why We Wrote This

Whether you're observing from afar, reporting on it, or living it, Brexit can seem endless. The Monitor's Brexit reporter finds echoes of the experience in an exhibit just a little way from Westminster.

Alastair Grant/AP
People watch a section of 'The Clock,' a 24-hour video installation by Christian Marclay, at the Tate Modern in London on Sept. 11, 2018.

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Take the elevator to the second floor of the Tate Modern, a colossal art museum in a converted power station two miles downriver of the Houses of Parliament in London, and you will find the viewing room for “The Clock.” This 24-hour video montage eases you into a dreamscape that goes beyond normal cinematic escapism. Its creator, Christian Marclay, culled thousands of famous and obscure film  clips for images of clocks – wristwatches, pocket watches, wall clocks, digital displays, sundials – that are edited to show the actual time, minute by minute, hour by hour. It’s cinematic time as real time. As a metaphor for Britain’s halting efforts to leave the European Union – will it, won’t it, didn’t we decide already? – “The Clock” is sublime. It’s the tick to Parliament’s tock, a “Groundhog Day” of temporal invention. Science fiction, spaghetti westerns, comic capers, murder mysteries, all spliced and synchronized into a compacted babel of genres and languages. Spend enough time watching “The Clock” and the loop is completed. There is no resolution. There is only past, present, and future.

This is my third reporting trip in three months to cover Brexit, the never-ending national drama over Britain’s vote to leave the European Union. Deadlines pass, politicians spar, autumn yields to winter. Nobody knows how or when it ends.

On each trip I find time to visit the Tate Modern, a colossal art museum in a converted power station two miles downriver of the Houses of Parliament, where Brexit is tied in political knots. The Tate Modern opened in 2000 and bills itself as the world’s most visited modern art museum. In 2016, it added a new 10-floor wing, a twisting lattice of inflected brick.

Take the elevator to the second floor and join the line to enter a dim, rectangular room of comfortable sofas. This is the viewing room for “The Clock,” a 24-hour video montage that in its audacity and simplicity eases you into a dreamscape that goes beyond normal cinematic escapism. It’s the most absorbing installation I’ve ever seen.

Its creator, Christian Marclay, culled thousands of famous and obscure film clips for images of clocks – wristwatches, pocket watches, wall clocks, digital displays, sundials – that are edited to show the actual time, minute by minute, hour by hour. It’s cinematic time as real time. No need to check your watch or phone: You’re watching an artistic timepiece.

As a metaphor for Britain’s halting efforts to leave the European Union – will it, won’t it, didn’t we decide already? – “The Clock” is sublime. It’s the tick to Parliament’s tock, a “Groundhog Day” of temporal invention. Science fiction, spaghetti westerns, comic capers, murder mysteries, all spliced and synchronized into a compacted babel of genres and languages.

You tell yourself it’s time to go. But as the hour approaches, the action speeds up. Bank robbers check their watches. Lovers on railway platforms dash past clocks. The narrative feels more urgent, the actors twitch and turn, and you wait for the release that follows.

Step outside under London’s gray skies and the Brexit impasse remains.

The Tate acquired “The Clock” in 2012 and it has been shown in art museums around the world. Since Mr. Marclay did not acquire the rights to the films he uses, “The Clock” is subject to the condition that museums do not charge to view it. That’s why it’s free to watch in London, one of the world’s priciest cities and a magnet for global capital and the ultra-rich.

After another hour spent with “The Clock,” I ride the elevator to the 10th floor to gaze at the spot-lit skyline across the river. The iconic dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral is almost lost amid the glass and metal towers of London’s financial district. New buildings are under construction, the pace of expansion seemingly unchecked by Brexit risk and political uncertainty.

A month earlier, I met a middle-aged couple at a pro-Brexit, right-wing rally that began outside a luxury hotel in Mayfair. They had driven from their small town in the Midlands to join the protest, and seemed ill at ease standing in the shadows of the glass-fronted towers where millionaires have second or third homes. “This doesn’t look like England,” the husband told me. “It’s another country.”

It’s not just London; other big cities have also shed much of the postwar drabness that I knew growing up here in the 1970s. Their pedestrianized streets of cafes and shops feel closer to continental Europe, yet are still recognizably British. When Britain voted in a referendum to join the European Community, as it was then, in 1975, its economy was sinking fast. “Goodbye Great Britain. It was nice knowing you,” wrote a Wall Street Journal columnist.

Britain’s economy has come a long way since then. But not everyone has felt the benefits, and their frustration at being written off by urban elites fed the Brexit campaign in 2016, which then set the clock ticking on Britain’s withdrawal from the EU in the name of “Taking Back Control.”

Prime Minister Theresa May’s government has no majority in Parliament for its Brexit deal, nor is it clear what kind of deal could muster a majority by a March 29 deadline, or if that deadline is firm. News channels report the dug-in arguments of all sides. Ms. May refuses to quit and insists that Brexit means Brexit. Each day feels like the last one or the one before.

Spend enough time watching “The Clock” – the Tate has held all-night weekend screenings for those curious to watch the after-hours action – and the loop is completed. There is no resolution. There is only past, present, and future.

The Tate jointly owns one of five copies of “The Clock” in public hands. Marclay stipulated that the film can’t be played simultaneously so museums must coordinate its exhibition. The Tate’s last showing in this run will be on Saturday. And so it must end. When will Brexit?

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