Christian Marclay's Telephones Video Ringing at the Denver Art Museum

Ringing telephones beckon museum visitors who reach level 4 of the Denver Art Museum’s Hamilton Building. Though tucked around a wall, Christian Marclay’s video Telephones (1995), one of our recent modern and contemporary acquisitions, is nearly impossible to miss because of the familiar sounds it emits.

In fact, Marclay has employed sound as part of his practice since the 1970s, when he was a student at Massachusetts College of Art. Influenced by performance artists and musicians he saw in New York when he was a visiting student at the Cooper Union, he began performing and making music as an alternative to making art objects. Marclay experimented with mixing and sampling, using records and tapes, and he integrated turntables into his performances years before spinning became a hip-hop phenomenon.

Marclay mixed film, too. Long before iMovie and Final Cut Pro made video editors out of many Mac and PC owners, and YouTube turned some of those amateurs into overnight sensations, Marclay created mesmerizing mashups of TV and movie clips. Telephones, for which Marclay culled from over 100 films, remains one of the artist’s most successful of these montages.

Telephones begins with a series of scenes of people dialing phones. Suspense builds as the mostly silent clips segue into others that feature ringing phones. Soon, people who appear on the screen are answering phones in a volley of hellos. An exchange starts, which becomes farcical as it progresses from one caller, each in a different movie, to another. A succession of quiet scenes showing conversants listening ensues. One at a time, the callers hang up, and the rhythm of their clicking receivers is interrupted by a scene of a woman (the actress Barbara Stanwyck) standing in a phone booth who, seemingly miffed, looks at the receiver in her hand before returning it to its cradle.

Knitted together, these snippets of filmed, fictional phone calls create a macronarrative: a single, epic call, the arc of which mimics that of the scenes that comprise it. In this way the montage inflates the drama of movie phone calls and real life ones, too.

Just as viewers recognize in Telephones the actions involved in making and receiving phone calls, most people who see the video likely also recognize scenes from classic movies that are featured. In this way, Marclay’s sampling of movies compares to his earlier music mixing and other artists’ musical sampling; DJs can hook listeners with familiar riffs much in the same way that a scene in Marclay’s video might catch a viewer’s eye. And like a talented DJ can lull a listener into a reverie, Telephones can mesmerize those who watch it.

Showing Off: Recent Modern & Contemporary Exhibitions highlights important new additions to the museums modern and contemporary art collection. The exhibition officially opens May 17, but Telephones is on view now.

Image credit: Christian Marclay. Still from Telephones, 1995. Video, running time 7:30 minutes. Gift of Polly and Mark Addison. © Christian Marclay. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York.