JAMES TURRELL’S THREE EXHIBITIONS ACROSS THE UNITED STATES TRANSFORM THE SCIENCE OF OPTICS INTO AN EXPERIENCE TOO TRANSCENDENT AND STRANGE TO DESCRIBE. WE TAKE A WOOZY JOURNEY INTO THE LIGHT.
Summer 2013 marks the launch of three major exhibitions of American artist James Turrell’s work: at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, and New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. The structure of this triple-Turrell-array is a rare stellar alignment. In this uncommon aggregate, viewers can take in many of Turrell’s site-specific installations in a single day. James Turrell’s light and space works are slick, drywall temples. Colored lights emanate coolly from carved out cavities. Shifting hues of LED, incandescent, and fluorescent light allude to the heat of the sun without breaking a sweat. Coasting through the exhibition at LACMA feels like covering great distances of time and space. Imagine Turrell in the early 1970s, piloting his five-passenger Helio Courier airplane over vast stretches of desert, in search of geometrically perfect volcanoes—Roden Crater, his masterwork-in-progress, is well-documented in each exhibition, even though the site itself remains inaccessible to visitors.
What I find, in a series of broad, airy rooms linked by open doorways, are variations on a simple yet fascinating mechanism: a single beam of intense light directed at a perfectly crisp corner, giving the sense of a pure dimensional object hovering in a darkened space. Afrum (White) (1966) appears to turn its face as I approach—a six-sided blindingly white cube of ambiguous volume, swooping shadows impossibly extending from its purpled edges. The viewer looks into the light source, without ever interrupting it, in a tight secure dance, a perpetual approach.
Turrell’s light-works are pointedly future-oriented, projecting an endless advance. Each work is a temple honoring a uniquely Californian technological landscape that emphasizes the mutability of one’s lived environment—molding domestic space to fit mental states. California: a zone where abundance of light, fantasy, and innovation exist in parallel. The dream of California: a peaceful and profitable civilization that grows out of redwoods, deserts, oceans, and salt flats to produce a perfectly customizable software for living.
Raemar Pink White (1969) is a shallow chamber divided in half lengthwise by an extremely low stage. I am confronted by a long, bright, rectangular border that sits glowing sharply pink on the stage, facing the doorway and a smooth white bench that extends from either side of the entrance. What is separated by this border I cannot say: I imagine Santa Monica, forty-four years ago, on the other side of the rectangular screen, glowing and levitating. I wonder if it is possible to think and see at the same time. Or whether it is possible to simultaneously see and describe and remember. I am impressed by the roundness of the corners of the room: no lines except those that define the shaped border as floating, a sunset without a horizon.
To enter these exhibits is to agree to a level of intensity, a disruption that can end in elation or vertigo, depending on an individual’s physical and mental state.
To be seated in silence in one of the rooms is the finest way to experience it, but not alone. When one is fortunate to sit with strangers in silence, one does not experience discomfort but rather an ease. Each piece has its own delicately enforced set of rules, suggested acclimation period and capacity—the “Ganzfeld” room Breathing Light is made for six people, Dark Matters for two—each work creates a transient community of light-dwellers. From a staging area, visitors about to enter Breathing Light view the previous group through a proscenium arch, a dramatic threshold where one body will replace another in a uniquely timed transfer. This simple transfer, reflection, and partnering forges basic empathic connections, accessing a not-subjective, not-individualistic part of human perception. Turrell’s arrangement of light in multi-dimensional shapes and immersive color sequences acknowledges the presence of a shared cognitive machinery for seeing—being—in time. There is a leveling: culture, upbringing, class, language, the news all become irrelevant. Every human walks in the light and is dazzled by it.
As the exhibition unfolds, the question of intensities comes to the forefront. What is the acceptable threshold between dazzle and disorientation? Gravity remains clear throughout the LACMA exhibition; up and down retain an orderly logic. The disorientation stations, namely the “Perceptual Cell” Light Reignfall (2011) and the site-specific Dark Matters (2011), are tightly controlled, ticketed separately from the rest of the exhibition. To enter these exhibits is to agree to a level of intensity, a disruption that can end in elation or vertigo, depending on an individual’s physical and mental state.
I am in the Ganzfeld room entitled Breathing Space (2013). It is disorienting. Or rather, it is excessively orienting—timed, controlled, focused in a way that contradicts my inclination to move in and out of engagement with each sense in order to comprehend. This could be called dreamlike, if I dreamed exclusively with my eyes. As it is, my body is awkward, cloth booties cover my sock feet, I want to sit, to be quiet. Voices interrupt, we are asked not to touch the walls or floor, not to move within certain boundaries, not to take images with cameras. There are six of us in this horizontal tunnel, now facing forward silently, traveling through time. The slope of the floor is the most difficult thing to anticipate, gently angled down through curved neutral space towards a rounded rectangular field of pristine blue. Behind us, a sharp rectangle, screen-like and ambiguously two-and-a-half-dimensional, through which I can see a line of people waiting their turn to enter. It’s difficult to know where to look. I choose a rounded corner where the wall meets the floor, and feel my field of vision completely occupied. A young girl in a florescent floral dress weaves past the others. “The air is actually changing colors too.” “Yeah,” I agree, the details in the room monopolizing my attention—a door, another door, the pulse-width-modulated waves of illumination—real and planned things. “The edges are actually as sharp as they look,” she says, making a triangle with her fingers. I wonder at the word “actually,” a guideline as we plumb the ambiguous outlines of the chamber, and the indefinite grain of time proceeding forwards with each wave of changing color. Blinking my eyes, I insert a blank space in the smooth curve of time, a refresh rate that breaks the unceasing transition between colors into discrete moments. I gain access to an internal perspective akin to memory, or a clock. I remember green as separate from blue. I once again understand red.
The artificial lighting of the newer works is framed within the context of natural phenomena introduced by Mendota Stoppages (1969-74), Turrell’s early work involving natural light passing through apertures. Staged in a vacant hotel in Santa Monica—Turrell’s studio at the time—Mendota Stoppages makes it possible to enter the fluorescent, incandescent, ultraviolet spaces thinking of sunsets, storms, morning, night, fog, moonlight. The complex hybrid of software, lighting, and architecture is framed within a lexicon of natural phenomena, connections created in real time as sensation is framed by experience.
As Count Giuseppe Panza di Biumo wrote in Artist of the Sky, his essay accompanying Turrell’s 1985 exhibition at Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, “When we think we are at our end, in a room in the city, we are sometimes afraid…Happiness can only be found when we know we are a part of Nature, when we lose our individual condition, but keep our awareness.” Turrell’s interweaving of natural and artificial light, cleanliness, software, intimacy, quiet, and being-together coincide to form a very Californian definition of pleasure: that technology can erase inter-subjective divisions and provide platforms for togetherness, with grace, free of doubt.