Christian Marclay, Telephones, 1995. Via Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University.

The nearly forgotten swoosh of a telephone dial; the clink of coins dropping into a slot; the heft of a thick black comma-shaped receiver pressed tight against your ear; and the anticipation of that breathless moment when a voice—somebody’s voice—would pick up on the other end and say “Hello?” 

The mysteries and drama of the earlier days of telephone culture flash by as Sean Connery, Whoopi Goldberg, Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn, Tom Hanks and a firmament of other stars dial or anxiously wait for a call, then answer, react and hang up in countless Hollywood films. Those character-revealing moments are excerpted and condensed into Christian Marclay’s 1995 video Telephones. Watching it now, with “land lines” and pay phones nearly extinct and smart phones everywhere roaming the earth, Marclay’s video feels like a survey of Jurassic technology, even more apt than when he made it less than 20 years ago.

Telephones is a seven-and-a-half-minute interlude of pure delight in the Henry Art Gallery’s latest exhibition The Ghost of Architecture, an assortment of gifts to the museum whose connection to architecture is loosely drawn and not especially revealing. Cool and formalist, or idea-driven and laden with referents to other art, much of this work demands intellectual engagement, a knowledge of art history, and prolonged viewing. Not many pieces give back as much sheer pleasure as Telephones.

Primarily photography and video works, the show also includes a sprawling 81-foot-long Sumi ink drawing (see below); a 20-foot-long fluorescent light sculpture, and Carsten Höller’s walk-in aluminum and light installation Neon Circle. (Neil Goldberg’s installation of two single-channel videos, 19 Rainstorms, was out of order during my visit.) Basically, the exhibition was assembled as a thank-you note to patrons—particularly Bill and Ruth True, the most prolific donors—for their largesse. Some pieces were previously exhibited at the Trues’ private gallery, Western Bridge, which closed last year.

Dawn Clements, Middlebury [detail], 2000, Sumi ink and IVA glue on paper. Promised gift of William and Ruth True.

This is not a show to pop in on for a quick art fix. With more than four cumulative hours of video on display, there’s the eternal problem of how to comfortably watch it in a gallery setting. A visitor can spend a lot of time shifting from foot to foot, trying to guess if this particular video is best watched from beginning to end (they all play continually), and how much time to devote to it and still see the rest of the show. One exception is Iranian-born Shirin Neshat’s simmering half-hour video, Possessed, presented in its own darkened room with a bench to sit on. The emotionally charged action follows a distraught woman as she babbles and wanders the streets of an anonymous Middle Eastern city, inciting various responses. Watching the silent drama start to finish is great if you can time it right, but an observer can get caught up in the mystery at any point and continue from there.

The Ghost of Architecture: Recent and Promised Gifts
Thru Sept 29, Henry Art Gallery

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