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Issue 239

Christian Marclay’s Nightmare of Opening and Closing Doors

At White Cube Mason's Yard, the artist’s latest film is a Kafkaesque vision that may leave you pining for the exit

BY Tom Morton in Exhibition Reviews , UK Reviews | 11 SEP 23

Assembled over ten years, Christian Marclay’s single-channel video collage Doors (2022) finally makes its London debut on a huge screen in the subterranean gallery of White Cube Mason’s Yard. Like the artist’s Telephones (1995), Crossfire (2007) and, most famously, The Clock (2010), it’s a work composed of hundreds of meticulously sequenced short clips from cinema’s long history – in this case, scenes which begin with a door being opened, and end with one being closed.

Christian Marclay
Christian Marclay, Doors, 2022, single-channel video. Courtesy: © the artist and White Cube

Doors, of course, mark the threshold between two spaces but, in Marclay’s video, they also become thresholds between two films, two fictional worlds. It’s a work in which John Travolta can exit one scene and enter another, having seemingly transformed into Sidney Poitier, Audrey Hepburn or even the creepy spectre of Woody Allen. Such unlikely shifts in identity are mirrored in shifts in cinematic genre. One quickfire edit and an obscure German B-movie segues into a French New Wave classic, or a 1980s American blockbuster. Black and white footage suddenly gives way to lurid Technicolor, while a perky score takes on an ominous tone. 

Part of what’s remarkable about Doors is how seamless it feels. Watching it, we’re well aware that the clips come from wildly disparate sources, and there’s a certain trainspotter-ish pleasure to be had in identifying as many as we can. Nevertheless, Marclay marshals his material to give the work something that strongly resembles narrative thrust. Every clip has a central protagonist and, while this protagonist appears to adopt a new persona – gangster or society beauty, cowboy or suburban mum – at each edit point, we’re compelled to follow their progress through door after door as if they were a single, unified self. 

Christian Marclay
Christian Marclay, Horizontal Cuts (Pink Door), 2023, altered wooden door, 46 × 78 × 17 cm. Courtesy: © the artist and White Cube

And yet, ‘progress’ is perhaps the wrong word here. A video of deliberately unstated length, Doors plays on a continuous loop, meaning that, no matter when we start viewing them, Marclay’s mutable protagonist will never reach a final destination or achieve narrative closure. There is always another key to turn or knocker to rap, another room for them to enter then exit, like the emissary trapped in an endless, inescapable royal palace in Franz Kafka’s short story ‘An Imperial Message’ (1919). There’s an argument to be made that Doors – for all its moments of levity, even farce – is, in fact, a species of horror movie. Watch it for long enough and the itch of claustrophobia begins to set in. After an hour, I found myself pining for a single shot of an exterior space.

Perhaps the most disquieting aspect of Doors is Marclay’s repeated re-use of a small number of clips within his loop. This not only toys with our sense of the work’s duration (there’s Peter Sellers again, surely I’ve reached the end?), but also denies his protagonist anything resembling a character arc. Just when we think they are in a state of perpetual reincarnation, a capricious edit turns them back into one of their previous selves. The rules to the artist’s game are written according to a nightmare logic, and never fully disclosed. 

Christian Marclay
Christian Marclay, Doors, 2022, single-channel video. Courtesy: © the artist and White Cube

Marclay presents a series of sculptures fashioned from wooden doors in the gallery’s upstairs space. Removed from its hinges, Skeleton Door (2023) has had its panels knocked out, leaving a brittle, bone-white frame. Its disfunction is echoed in Horizontal Cuts (Pink Door) (2023), in which five rectangular sections cut from a single door are stacked into a vaguely Donald Judd-like cuboid form. This work is surely a nod to Marclay’s video, in which all that really lies beyond each threshold is another, then another. There may be points of egress, but there is no way out. 

Christian Marclay’s ‘Doors’ is at White Cube, Mason’s Yard, until September 30 

Main image: Christian Marclay, Doors, 2022, single-channel video, installation view. Courtesy: © the artist and White Cube

Tom Morton is a writer, curator and contributing editor of frieze, based in Rochester, UK.