Let’s talk about James Turrell. Yeah, its been a while, hasn’t it? He’s still out there, digging away at Roden Crater. Turrell also has a major retrospective up right now at LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art), and I recently had the opportunity to see that show. It was the first time I’d really gotten to experience Turrell’s work in person, which is (more than with any other artist) the only way to see it. It is really unlike any other art viewing I’ve ever experienced.
James Turrell: A Retrospective, at LACMA, is divided into two parts. Part 1 is a retrospective of projections and hollows, some dating as far back as the 1960s. Afrum (White) from 1966, is a projection of white light into the corner of a room, creating the illusion of a three-dimensional cube suspended in the space of the room. We walked into the mostly dark room and moved around a bit, and yeah, it’s trippy, it looks like it’s 3d. We were about to move on to the next room when the surprisingly helpful and friendly security guard volunteered the optimal way to view the piece. Following his advice, I started over. Closing one eye, he’d told me, helps the illusion (by eliminating binocular vision, you get rid of some of the visual cues that tell you what’s closer and what’s farther away). I also found that removing my eyeglasses reduced the focus enough that things like wall texture disappear, which also helped. The basic principle at work here is that a projected beam of light hitting the corner of a room, at a diagonal, the beam spreads out more and more as it nears the corner, because its farther away. This mirrors the way objects appear smaller as they get farther away, creating the phenomenon we call two-point perspective. The neat thing is that the illusion not only remains, but in fact becomes more and more convincing, as one moves about the room. Slowly, keeping my one uncovered eye trained on the projection, I walked across the room, watching the apparent cube rotate in the darkened room. By the time I reached the wall, looking along its length at the projection, it appeared totally to be a hovering, glowing box, floating off the wall.
The rest of Part 1 continued generally in this vein, early pieces mostly consisting of either this kind of projection, or of backlit cutouts into the walls. Turrell also produced a series of holograms, on display here, and the exhibition might give some hope to those working to preserve SAIC’s holography program. But the real money shot is in Part 2. We actually viewed Part 2 first, having been advised by a friend who’d seen the show that as it got later in the day the lines would get longer. Entering Part 2, we walked past the “Perceptual Cell,” a sort of Bathysphere-like contraption deigned to immerse one viewer at a time in an environment of colored light. Unfortunately, the piece required separate tickets beyond the separate tickets required for the rest of Turrell’s show, and they were both expensive (eighty bucks, I think) and sold out long before we had planned our trip to LA. (Even the remainder of Turrell’s show required separate tickets which had sold out for the day by the time we arrived at 11:45, but we’d bought ours in advance.)
For the rest of us, the heart of Part 2 was a 2011 piece called Purusa. After standing in line in a darkened hallway, shephered by security, we entered a sort of foyer. A long bench ran along one wall, with cubbies beneath for shoe storage. We were asked to take off our shoes and don little white booties while we waited. Opposite the bench was a ziggurat dias of carpeted steps, leading up to an aperture in the far wall, through which we watched the preceding group of viewers experiencing the piece beyond. The light in that space gradually changed, and gave those in it a sort of halo of a second color. I have no idea how this works, but for example when the light in the space was blue, those inside it seemed to have green halos around them. And then it was our turn and we were called into the space.
Purusa consists of a large room with the cross section of a rounded rectangle, so no corners are visible. Opposite the entry door is an open wall, opening into a space with a bare wall a few feet back. The room itself is let by bars of colored LEDs around the door, while the far wall is lit separately. The room is kept fairly dim, the far wall more brightly lit. The result has been described as being that of a physical screen, in the shape of a rounded rectangle, hanging in the space of the room. I could see this, but (perhaps in part as a result of having had it thus described) I saw it less as an object and more as a portal (as it is), but opening not into a shallow face blocked by a wall, but rather opening into a vast, featureless expanse. Okay, frankly, it made me think of the door to a shuttle bay in the Rebel base on Hoth. It had that bright, blank, vast, strangely-colored, polar sort of feel. At least at first.
Spending some time in the space, these physical associations began to diminish. I removed my eyeglasses, mostly to get the frames out of my peripheral vision, and faced a wall so that no other viewers were in my field of vision. And I stared blankly into space, into color, into light. It occurred to me that looking at Turrell’s installation felt a lot like how I look at a Rothko painting. In Washington DC, I think it was the fall of 2005, I went to the National Gallery, and somewhere they had a room full of Rothkos. I was there by myself, no timeline to speak of, and that’s when I figured out how to look at a Rothko. I approach the Rothko from across the room, forming a quick visual impression but not really lingering until I am close enough that the margins of the painting become lost in my peripheral vision. Aah, there it is. Now you can look at it. Not that you can actually see it, not yet, but you can start to look. If you wear corrective lenses you might take them off; petty details like the scumbled paint and the weave of the canvas, which those nose-to-the-surface would-be viewers take to be so important, are in fact entirely incidental. Rothko paints with what, at least to me, looks like a disregard for the paint. He paints like he wishes it was light. And, after a few minutes of staring, that’s what it becomes, that’s what it is. It occurs to you, that you aren’t seeing paint, that you can never see paint, that you can never see anything at all, except light. Photons, particles or waves, hitting you in the retina, through whatever intermediary barriers of nerves, aqueous and vitreous humors, lenses, cornea, and intervening air, but ultimately it’s just light hitting your brain. That’s how you look at a Rothko. It’s drugs, man. It’s drugs.
So you step inside the Turrell and everything’s weird, you’re thinking about Hoth and looking down at your hands, that weird marbling, dark blood and pale fat showing through the translucent skin, and you’re thinking about drugs, and light, and the color slowly, gradually changes. You suspect gradients, and question relationships. Look behind you, back through the door by which you came. Come on, art school kids, you’ve done this before. You know the light out there was white, or white-ish, a warm white I’d call “Institutional Incandescent.” The whole time you sat out there, it never changed, so you know it isn’t changing now. And you remember simultaneous contrast, the phenomenon by which colors shift towards the complement of adjacent colors, in the same way you have more game if you have an ugly wingman. And you remember your 2D design class, your color theory. The room is blue right now (and now blue was your color) and so of course when you look back, the outside room is going to be orange. But it’s not. It’s green. It’s fucking green. Green is its color.
So Turrell’s inside your fucking head, and he’s got a ballpein hammer and a pair of tin snips, and he’s just sort of banging away and cutting shit, seeing what happens. And you don’t know whether he knows. Is he like some Dr. Mengele, Dr. Moreau, mad scientist type, experimenting on us, blindly? Or is he more like some demonic Clive Barker villain or H.P. Lovecraft bumbling hero, offering to show us heretofore unseen worlds, but perhaps at some terrible cost? Of course not. That’s fucking silly. He’s just an old man, an artist, probably a bit of a hippie, or maybe we’re just stereotyping based on the long, gray beard. Maybe he’s a wizard.
There is, undeniably, something about Turrell’s work that makes you feel like there’s an experiment going on, and you’re not sure if you’re a peer reviewer examining the results, or a subject providing data. In this there’s something a lot like Olafur Eliasson, who in his semi-recent (last few years, look it up) exhibition at the MCA Chicago provided a similar sort of experimental, experiential exhibition. One was a round walled enclosure of changing colored light, which one viewed in a way similar to the way you experience Purusa, albeit on a more modest scale. Another was a corridor filled with amber light, to which ones eyes become so adjusted that, upon leaving, the whole world is bright goddamned violet.
So anyway, Turrell’s got this place, Roden Crater, out near my new digs in Flagstaff, Arizona. And you can’t go there. Neither can I, for that matter. It’s pretty tightly guarded, and while you can find it on a map, generally, the exact location is a pretty closely guarded secret. I saw a lecture the Psychology department at Northern Arizona University (where I now teach) put on about Turrell’s work, and it was such a tease, the presenter sort of apologized for getting us all hard and sending us home with blueballs. So far, the only people who can go out there, unless you “know somebody,” are people who have supported the project through purchases of major works. As for the general public? It’s anyone’s guess. Wikipedia cites an article, from 2007, as saying Turrell intends to open the place for public viewing…in 2007.