"You are not good at all with your hands: you should study literature"
This statement thrown at him in 1976 by his career counsellor had him baffled
for ever. That year he was being expelled from
school with an average grade of 2.6 (out of 6), off to a rather bad start in professional life. As he was barred from any school
and had been assured, with supporting evidence, that he was no good with his hands he soon found himself an apprentice
electrician. He already was a creator. At that time, probably through lack of inspiration, the only thing he created was worries
for his boss, his parents and the boys in blue.
After that came ten years where he drifted between two extremes: do something
with his hands and dream. In 1986 he set off
for a travel with Athanase, his old rucksack, (born 1937, 1 gallon, and loathsome straps that cut into your shoulders). This
resulted in the following statistics: 67 countries visited over 4 continents, 25000 hitchhiked miles, over 750 by foot, 1,800 on
bicycle, and more than 300 nights slept under the stars without a tent. Mention should also be made, in passing, of fifty or so
turistas, amoebas and a resounding malaria. When he came back home he was definitively cured of the idea that the grass is
always greener on the other side of the fence. The time had finally come for serious matters. For two years he worked for a
telecommunication company and in 1993 opened his own workshop under an archway of the old city of Sion. His first two
major works date from that period: the Alarm Clock and the Draft. Two pieces that he considers as youthful indiscretions but
which nevertheless showed him the way, since without them none of the others could have been born.
"If you had studied clockmaking like we did you could never have done all of this!"
It was an electronic repair shop. Everyone could come with a broken video,
their CD player or anything they wanted repaired.
Marcel would also design prototypes for manufacturers or modify existing installations. There's fascination in repairing: first you
need to put yourself in the shoes of the original designer, follow his thought, then find the problem. Repair and improve if need
be. But soon he noticed that those devices were only made to last a few years before being disposed of. Well, Marcel does
have a problem with time: he only likes what lasts. "I had seen my grandfather plant trees whose fruit he knew he would
never live old enough to see. This sight struck me when I was a child and I still believe he was in the right." Little by
little he started to divert objects from their original purpose, for fun and above all to get his revenge on our throw-away culture.
This was the time of the CD players. It is therefore right to say that his very job lead to this move. The other motivation for the
"diverted objects" was the lack of tools: as he was not always able to manufacture his parts he would pick from his stock of old
spares. And by the way if you meet him on Sunday and he tells you he is looking for inspiration don't think he goes for a walk in
the mountain: he's on his way to some junkyard in search of parts. Everything his very slow with him: it often takes 4 years
between the time he gets an object and the time he does something with it. He then loses any interest in the manufactured
objects because they only fascinate him while they are in process. Then in 1997 he stopped creating CD players because in the
end they wear down: that's when he turned to designing clocks. Clocks, according to him, will not age.
His clocks fall into two categories: those that Marcel builds from scratch
and those made from salvaged parts. The easiest ones
are those where he designs everything because he just needs to have an idea and turn it into reality. "When I am tooling a part
I'm in control. Therefore it will have the qualities I give it as well as my weaknesses. In other words very little mystery.
When I "divert" an object it dictates me what to do A work made of diverted objects, like Moreno, calls for much
more attention, a lot of time for execution and a lot of satisfaction when assembling. It's an entirely different
"Very often it'll take me three days to tool a part and then when it's
done I can see that it would have been better if I
had done it differently. Then I make another one. As a result what you see in a clock is nothing compared to what was
scrapped. With only the parts scrapped when building the Anachrone, I could have built five others." For Skyport, one
of the scrapped parts cost him no less than 3 months of labour and still is not finished! That's the cost of simplicity. "The first
idea is always too complicated. Time then comes and removes all that is superfluous." A clock like Chronolithe, only
shines by its simplicity because you can not remove anything.
"Dressed as you are I do not understand how you can
design such beautiful things"
(a visitor at the Grande Fontaine gallery exhibition)
Until then he never wanted or imagined selling anything: that's why the
Grande Fontaine gallery exhibition, in December 2001,
finally taught him a lesson. Could people be interested in his works ? That's only when he started to let go of some of the pieces
he had designed. Which had no impact on his production.
"He's got no taste but lots of luck"Caroline Baumann (his wife)
Basically he has always had one single rule: don't follow anybody else's
footsteps and don't go back on your own. He himself
has no name for what he does. Art? "A good idea, followed by several months of labour. You just need to be stubborn
and hard working." Now we are sure he has no master. That's why every piece out of his workshop is unique, sometimes an
invention. And some (Alcoographe, Paix des ménages, Natel valaisan....) even go as far as to make us laugh, which is an
achievement for what are, after all, only metal bits. One thing is for sure: he has no idea where he is heading. He always has
three or four projects in mind and he will always blindly follow them. That's how it was a few years ago, you can count that
that's how it will be twenty years from now. All the objects he touches tend to turn into works of art, as if they suddenly
outgrew their initial purpose. This very purpose becomes accessory, like any musical score. The essence, as always, is
For many people making their dream come true is an accomplishment. For
Marcel Bétrisey it's a major weakness. A weakness
that eats up his time, cannibalises his aspirations, overflows on his nights and rather gets on his friends' nerves. Even his
conversation has become boring: after five minutes he will always squeeze in some news about "his last one", his technical
problems and so on. And if you are still listening he'll certainly discuss his most prized clock: the next one! The next one is "the
killer one", the clock to end all clocks. It will do this, will get a laser here, its pendulum will look like that... In the process he
will have you believe that it's a world first and that he'll stop doing clocks after this last one. All those who know him believed it
once as much as he believes it every time. No longer. Six months from now he will always be talking about "the killer clock" but
it will behave differently, will get a laser in a different place, plus four pendulums... The years that pass by do not do Marcel any
good: he is getting worse all the time. However there is some reason for hope: his last creations tend to be sober, lighter and
Here is a man who can show up at work with shoes from two different pairs,
non matching socks, wearing his girlfriend's coat.
He can be one day late for meetings, is simply unable to check a restaurant bill, has already filled his bike twice with diesel,
sometimes goes heel over head over the handle because he forgets to unlock the padlock. For 4 years he had to enter his car
through the window (the door was not to be repaired on any account), had to operate the windscreen wiper by hand. To this
day he has still not be able to install a lamp on the front porch of his house. When he drives into a tunnel with his sunglasses on
his nose he will first suspect the car's headlights. Here is a genius for you ! So please call him any other name.
That's exactly where the problem lies: he is unable to do anything else.
It's a disease that they did not know how to cure when
he was a child, after that it could only go worse. Exactly like baldness, rheumatism or myopia. The proof is that he is always
dreaming of pulling through. Find a job as a school assistant, sweep fallen leaves in autumn, and above all reach the evening
with a free and untroubled mind... Which only makes his friends scream with laughter every time he mentions the subject.
Where will he possibly stop?
That is easy to tell: he lacks tools, time and does not have the money
to make more pieces. These factors have already limited
his current production. However give him only a little of any of the three (tools, time, money) and he'll come up with ten new
designs. Because they are already there, lined up and ready to go in his disturbed mind: the photonics pendulum (another
worlwide first), the pendulum bicycle (that would make Tinguely roll in his grave), the giant ball-clock, the mercury flow
pendulum etc. etc.
All this is largely beyond his means but the unanimous opinion among his friends is that it's exactly how it should be. And
Marcel as usual has no clue what's going on.
200 people visit his site daily. One third are physicists or people interested
in physics, a second third is made up of people only
interested in clock making and the last one are artists. For the clock makers he is an artist. For the artists he is only a mechanic.
For the mechanics its impossible to work with so few tools. For electronicians he is a poet. So what? "The only thing that
counts is that the ideas that float in my head come to life." He knows that the objects he makes will outlive him. "Say
what you want but we will disappear and my clocks' pendulums will still be swinging. That's what I like most in these
pieces; they are beyond words and fashions." And that is not bad in a time when what is said about things is so much more
important than the things themselves.