James Turrell: Lucid in the Ecstasy of Light

Santafe.com | THE magazine - July 4, 2014

In August of 1989, I was in Santa Fe on a visit, prior to moving back, and it was a flawless evening on the grounds of the Center for Contemporary Arts. With me were Linda Klosky—who was then the Co-Director of CCA—and the late Stuart Sherman, a performance artist visiting from New York, and we were about to experience the Skyspace by James Turrell, a work that had been constructed the year before. Klosky had the keys and she knew exactly how the recessed lighting, ensconced invisibly around the opening square in the ceiling, had to be adjusted before viewing. She also followed Turrell’s other directive—we were meant to sit inside the Skyspace one hour before sunset until one hour after. However, viewers didn’t have to stay glued to their seats. People were free to get up and go outside and compare their impressions of the changing color of the sky within the space with the actual changes in the sky outside; trust me, the first comparison was enough to understand that something about our perceptions was being ever so subtly tweaked.

In order to experience the full impact of the Turrell piece, it was never simply a matter of sitting inside the Skyspace at any old time. Yes, it was a wonderful place to visit, in and of itself, but random encounters and hit-and-run perceptions of the sky— without the investment of time and a commitment to the artist’s parameters of viewer participation—wasn’t what Turrell intended. Ideally, one had a two-hour date with the great magus of alchemical light; and the experience in question would yield the juxtaposition of a virtual perception of the sky seen within the Skyspace, compared with the actual color of the sky outside it. The key to the different impressions was in the recessed lighting which caused the square of visible light above your head to appear denser, darker, and closer to the viewer—it was an almost palpable azure blanket hanging over you, just out of reach. Going outside and doing a reality check of the actual sky made you realize there was a trick being played on your ability to perceive; in short, the two views of light were not the same. Alas, Turrell’s observatory had a one-year lifespan and that particular evening in August was the last time that Skyspace would provide its highly controlled brush with wonder.

Those lucky enough to have seen Turrell’s installation Aten Reign at the Guggenheim Museum last year (I did not get to see this) or James Turrell: A Retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (which I did get to see) can attest to the uncanny phenomena that the artist creates just by lighting a space in a particular way. Turrell can overload your visual receptors with manipulated particles (or are they waves?) of light and cause something called the “Ganzfeld effect”—this happens when a person stares for a long period of time at a uniform field of color. One’s eyes get saturated with artificial light of a certain hue that can also stimulate the viewer to feel a paradoxical sensory deprivation, instigating some very odd and contradictory sensations, like faulty depth perception. You can be overwhelmed with feelings of a spiritual nature in one moment, and in the next you can feel a little unhinged and queasy. This was definitely the case in Turrell’s expansive roomsize pieces Breathing Light and Key Lime at LACMA.

The intensity of the slowly changing colors in the former piece seemed to permeate the floor, ceiling, and walls and made you feel as if you were moving through a physical medium that had weight and depth. You couldn’t move through the room without the sensation that you were about to bump into the residues of your own held breath finally exhaling in a mad embrace with Turrell’s “dreamy sorcery.”

Of all the pieces at LACMA, it was Breathing Light that was the most intense and disconcerting. It wasn’t just an environment of manipulated light; the room provided an entire light bath. Everywhere you looked and walked, you moved through a thick ether of color that morphed into other colors—a vivid pink was transformed almost imperceptibly into violet and then blue; and when you looked back at the wide doorway through which you entered, it appeared like a curtain of translucent green. The number of people allowed in the room was pre-determined—only seven people at a time were allowed to enter this large, elevated space after walking up a series of steps. Those waiting their turn below sat on a banco watching the dazed movements of those in the privileged area. I say dazed because that is exactly how it felt inhaling this flood of optical phenomena. The chromatic ether was incredibly present and incredibly absent at the same time—you tried to touch it but there was nothing there. Turrell has stated, “We drink light” and the phenomenology behind the Ganzfeld series, with its intense drenching of space by way of the waves (or is it particles?) of light, has no other corollary in contemporary art. Turrell is his own avatar at play in the relics of time.

Turrell took his college degree in Perceptual Psychology and was part of the famous “Light and Space” movement in Southern California in the 1960s, along with artists like Robert Irwin and Doug Wheeler. The critic Jeffrey Kastner wrote in ArtForum, in 2014, about a recent Wheeler immersive environment at David Zwirner in New York. He stated that these artists “emerged from a peculiarly Californian mix of observational naturalism, psychedelic searching and détourned military-industrial technology.” The French adjective refers to the concept of hijacking—as in hijacking tools from the military-industrial complex in order to re-purpose them for the exploration of perceptual thresholds in an age of the dematerialization of the art object.

In the last analysis, what you get in a Turrell installation is far more than what you see. A viewer enters into a whole other network of associational meanings that are a kind of effusion, a byproduct of uncanny calculations. In the carefully orchestrated rooms at LACMA, the first piece a viewer encountered was Afrum (White), from 1966. In the darkened gloom, an all-white “cube” seemed to hang suspended in a corner. It was like a huge, dazzling, perfectly formed piece of ice, hovering there in a temporal-spatial sleight of hand. Anyone who saw it wanted to go over and run his or her hands along the surface of this perceived solid. The magic behind any Turrell experience is that his pieces are created by hidden lights installed with mathematical precision and projected through a calculus of illusions. The hovering object isn’t real—its apparent density is a matter of photons manipulated just so—and the reality behind each work is beyond the reach of your rods and cones; meaning that what hardware is responsible in each installation doesn’t begin to explain what your eyes are apprehending. Cause and effect run delightfully counter to each other, even as delight is mixed with perplexity. As Schjeldahl wrote, “… your looking engages in an intimate quarrel with knowing what you see.”

Our associations with the experiences of light are legion. Light conjures feelings that run from the transcendent to the terrifying. For example, there is the crystalline clarity of a New Mexico sky, the occluded light of fog and smoky haze, and Homer’s “rosy fingered dawn.” Then there is Henry David Thoreau’s observation about the pale-green blush that appears on the horizon at sunset, which he described as “paler than the juice of limes,” and if you watch for it the green is definitely there. I thought of Thoreau’s words when I was in the installation Key Lime. As ordinary humans busy with mundane matters, it’s easy to take qualities of light for granted. But if you’re fortunate, you might find yourself someday in a room with a blend of fuchsias, pinks, and purples as in the work Raemar Pink White, and you might fall under the spell of its mysterious aftereffects. It isn’t hard to convince yourself that you might be hallucinating when, against the wall, the thin frame of white light surrounding a rectangle of pink seems to be turning blue around its edges, but only intermittently. Is the thin blue line really there, or just an afterimage from the blending of light? Does the blue exist or is it a deeply embedded perceptual byproduct whose reality the viewer can neither prove nor disprove?

After a few minutes of staring hard at this wall and turning my head back and forth quickly, watching the blue line blink on and off, I turned my back to the piece and began laughing when I saw a guard watching me with a big smile on his face. Immediately, I went up to him and asked, “What’s going on with this?” The guard, fully immersed in Turrell’s work, laughed with me because he knew exactly what I was groping for in terms of understanding this phenomenon. “Yes,”he said, “I know—it’s there but it isn’t there and it’s marvelous, is it not?”

Turrell is hyper-attuned to the elasticity of nature and human nature, and his understanding of the many dimensions of light has tempted him to try to embrace the entire celestial vault, bringing it down to earth so it will hover over us like a dome we think we can reach out for, press against, and drink in. This is where the artist’s incredibly ambitious project, Roden Crater, comes in—Turrell’s magnum opus, which defies an easy summary. His naked-eye observatory out in the Arizona desert will provide the viewer with experiences of limitlessness—glimpses of infinity made to feel as concrete as a floating azureto- dense-indigo disk of a substance never before seen or described. In Turrell’s long day’s journey into the realm of alchemical light, he is always lucid in the ecstasy of his illusions.

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