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All day and night, film at MFA will be right on time

(Photo courtesy of Christian Marclay)
By Geoff Edgers
Globe Staff / May 4, 2011

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There were long lines when artist Christian Marclay’s latest creation, a 24-hour film, “The Clock,’’ showed in New York and London. And today, the Museum of Fine Arts will announce plans to bring the phenomenon to Boston.

The MFA will pay close to $250,000 to become one of a handful of museums worldwide to acquire the highly unusual video piece, which samples thousands of movie moments featuring watches, clocks, or other such devices, synchronizing the images with the actual time at the location where the piece is played.

The result, a melding of video and reality, unfolds with a seemingly endless cast of cameos, including Gary Cooper, Orson Welles, Denzel Washington, Paul Newman, Christopher Walken, Owen Wilson, and Marisa Tomei.

The MFA said it will unveil “The Clock’’ to Bostonians Sept. 17 when it opens the renovated Linde Family Wing as a contemporary art space.

Lizbeth and George Krupp, who saw “The Clock’’ in London, donated the money for the purchase, which is the first through a fund established in the memory of real estate mogul Edward Linde, a generous contributor and MFA trustee who died last year.

The MFA will mark the opening of the Linde Wing by staying open for 24 hours, giving visitors a chance to see every moment of Marclay’s piece. The artist stip ulates that the film cannot be shown in pieces or out of time, meaning that to see the 2 a.m. to 3 a.m. section of “The Clock,’’ you must be in front of the screen during those early morning hours.

“I can’t think of a more fitting work,’’ said Edward Saywell, the MFA’s chair of contemporary art and programs. “It’s such a magnum opus.’’

In an unusual arrangement, the MFA will split ownership and the nearly $500,000 cost of “The Clock’’ with the National Gallery of Canada. White Cube, Marclay’s London-based gallery, encouraged this because there are only six editions of the piece. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art and an unnamed private donor have purchased copies of their own. But a group of institutions — some in Europe, others in the United States — is finalizing the purchase of the remaining three editions. At least two of the three will be shared.

By sharing the purchase, the MFA and National Gallery of Canada cannot show “The Clock,’’ which is stored on a computer hard drive, at the same time. The MFA negotiated to unveil it first for the Linde Wing.

Craig Burnett, White Cube’s associate director, said it is possible that the MFA could have purchased the work on its own.

“At the same time, we encouraged sharing,’’ he said. “If they do share, they split the cost. This also allows more people to see it because no institution will exhibit an artwork constantly.’’

The California-born Marclay lives in New York and London and is a Massachusetts College of Art graduate. Over the years, he’s created works that draw from popular culture and music, and employ the elements of sampling. Several of his works are on display in the exhibition “The Record,’’ at the Institute of Contemporary Art.

In 2009, the MFA bought another Marclay work, “Allover (The Oak Ridge Boys, Rollins Band, Styx and Others),’’ a unique photograph, almost like a ghostly X-ray of unraveled cassette tapes.

“The Clock’’ is a work on a different scale.

Marclay worked on it for two years, sometimes for as long as 10 hours a day. He had six research assistants searching for clips that featured clocks, sundials, countdowns, and other timepieces. The final product has been called a “masterpiece’’ by the Daily Telegraph and Guardian newspapers in London, and was described by Roberta Smith, writing in The New York Times, as “the greatest movie trailer ever made, as well as the ultimate work of appropriation art.’’

The Krupps saw the piece in London and talked it up to Jen Mergel, the MFA’s senior curator of contemporary art. She saw “The Clock’’ at the Paula Cooper Gallery in New York. “It is one of these word-of-mouth pieces where I can understand why the line was around the corner,’’ Mergel said. “There’s something somewhat familiar and mystifying about the narrative passing you by in your own time.’’

Saywell also saw “The Clock’’ in New York, though he didn’t have much time to spend with it. But even in that short space, the piece’s special function — the fact that it operates as an actual clock — made an impression.

“I probably had a half-hour before I had to run to catch a train at Penn Station,’’ he said. “During that time, I had this moment of continuously checking my watch and suddenly having this realization that there was this almighty clock on the screen.’’

The MFA let White Cube know it was interested in “The Clock.’’ At the same time, the National Gallery of Canada was talking to the London sellers about buying an edition.

Though the curators at each institution didn’t know each other, White Cube brought them together.

“Video is one of the few mediums that is easily shared by institutions with joint ownership agreements,’’ Saywell said.

“The Clock’’ comes with very specific installation instructions, from the kind of computer it must be run on (an Apple G5 Mac Pro) to the seating offered (“sofas need to be comfortable to accommodate long viewing periods.’’)

For now, the only 24-hour viewing is scheduled for the Linde wing opening, but the MFA will look for another chance to show “The Clock’’ in full.

“We know that’s very important to Marclay and it’s important to us as well,’’ Saywell said.

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com

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