In Activate the Three Artefacts and then Leave, players are left without character; without avatar. Even in traditional first-person-shooters where the avatar is not necessarily shown at every opportunity, there’s a sense of the body: glimpses in mirrors that reveal a self, a gun peeking into view as an extension of the hand, or movement that is defined by running, walking, and jumping. Artefacts instead exists solely in a space designed for the player, the person at his or her computer. It strips away the artifice of a designed world, of character, of setting, or of plot, and instead, like a math problem, is a task designed for completion, one contained within its title.
It proves to be similar to a constructed toy: a Rubik’s cube, or a disentanglement puzzle (where two interlocked pieces must be made single). In simplicity, Artefacts is, like these, a parlor game: an object whose goal seems to be defined by its physical presence. With its goal laid bare, there is no universe at stake; there is no character needing rescue. There is only the player; there is only the object.
And it’s both maddening and relaxing at the same time. As far as games go, it’s relatively simple: the player moves at a slow, deliberate pace through three-dimensional space. Where in most first-person games one might walk or run, here you float in space, as though you were a calm, digital fly, surrounded only by an infinite, white space, its only inhabitant a massive globe of polygons. Move toward it and an entrance is revealed, a small hole not unlike the exhaust port on the Death Star. But instead of a large planet of pipes, metals, and clones, Artefacts’ planet is made entirely of whitespace and black lines, a simplicity that comes together to form a great construction of geometric off-shapes, their corners never really touching at right angles, their walls never really indistinguishable upon exploration.
This is the main conceit of the game: one’s eyes are practically useless, and it doesn’t really set in until too late. I had just entered the great orb when I turned around and realized that the entrance would need to be an exit, and the great expanse of outer-white had blended into the same white surfaces that made up the walls which now contained me. After a panicky five minutes of bumping into every surface available, I found it, but realized it did not matter—I had to continue deeper. Deeper through great halls of jagged edges filled with floating boxes, their edges seemingly impossible. But the player isn’t meant to navigate by sight; the player is meant to navigate by sound.
There’s a secret area in the game Limbo—a moody and atmospheric platformer defined by a stark, deadly world of children portrayed in blacks and grays—that is entirely dark. The only visual cues there are the two white orbs that are the bright, scared eyes of the protagonist. While in the majority of the game, the player guides him (and his eyes) safely away from obstacles such as sawblades or giant, nightmarish spiders by visuals—in the same way one plays a Mario game—this stage is entirely unseen. Here, to avoid a sawblade isn’t to jump over its sharp, rotating edges, it is to jump over its sound—the caustic, cutting hum as it moves from right to left across the stage. It’s a lovely twist that subverts the dominant strategy of not only the game, but the visual medium, and moves a different sense—hearing—to the forefront of the experience.
Artefacts accomplishes the same not by putting the player in the darkness, but by offering a world that features no real features. In the same way James Turrell’s pieces (such as Wide Out) play with perspective and a sense of space by subverting corners and joints, Artefacts does the same by offering so many of them. It’s not an absence of walls; it’s an abundance. And while sight is necessary to discover rooms and float about, getting lost isn’t just easy, it’s nigh unavoidable: the jaggy sphere is massive, continually unknown. You might recognize the same set piece, but there are no visual bearings.
There are, however, audial ones. Depending on where the player is in the great sphere, they’ll find themselves immersed in great pools of noise: statics, whites, pinks. It’s a quick and obvious realization that in order to navigate in any real way, one has to be paying attention with their ears more than their eyes: to distinguish between a pure white noise, or a white noise blended with a gentle static, or the same static on its own, tiny crackles forming a recognizable beat that echoes within the skull.
After you find an Artefact—a gently floating object that stands out easily among the geometric sphere-scape—light, calming hues of color finally pop into being, only if to let you know that you’ve activated it, that you’ve taken a step towards the completion. It might seem like the only friendly system in an otherwise nightmarish world, but it’s not. It’s the statics that want to help bring you home, navigate the quadrants of a great, imperceptible object whose joints are needles against the eye, against spatial perception. They fill in like voices aware that they aren’t saying anything, but still screaming as a constant landmark in a giant shape that seems to shift and catch you in a circle again and again. They’re this strange, white world’s equivalent of a street sign, or a friendly local pointing in the direction of a tourist attraction. Only here, you can’t just look; you need to listen.
Amelia PelÃ¡ez’s Havana Hilton Hotel mural, ca. 1957. Cuban Heritage Collection, University of Miami Libraries.
Travelogue: Three Cities, Three Retrospectives
Beyond the stuffed animal selfies at PS1, LACMA and PAMM
Itâ€™s been a wild winter break, but Whatâ€™s the T? is back in Chicago in time for dibs season and motivated by the artists brave enough to exhibit in the tundra. For those of you holed up in your apartment licking the radiator for warmth (like I am), hereâ€™s a recap of some shows outside of the snow globe.â€¨
Closing next Sunday, February 2nd (with a performance by Kim Gordon), is the exhibition that’s been blowing up my feed since it opened at PS1 in October of 2013. Mike Kelley’s retrospective is a 40,000 square foot sprawling colossus of an exhibition. Although I could have lived without the seemingly endless rooms of Kandors (a reference to the miniaturized capital city of Superman’s rival Brianiac) on the first floor, the exhibition impressively filled the sprawling school house and gave me a new appreciation for the artist.
Birdhouses by Mike Kelley at PS1.
Never before in my life have I seen so many swastikas and phallus and felt pretty ok about the whole thing. Arguably the greatest mindfuck in the entire exhibition (taking up an entire floor, the cacophonous a/v installation Day is Done was a close second), Pay for Your Pleasure, a corridor of large portrait paintings and quotations from famous intellectuals effectively complicated the relationship between violence and creativity. By the time I reached the end of the corridor I had completely lost the ability to tell right from wrong.
Kelley’s banners in the hallway at PS1.
The oft-posted Deodorized Central Mass With Satellites was among the least interesting rooms (also the one with the longest line). Watching people pose in front of the hulking mass of leftover toys, I wondered how Kelley himself might have felt about powerful installation’s transmutation into a selfie photo-op. I did pop a huge boner for the dysfunctional birdhouses and the artist’s drawings of his own name. Most disappointing though was PS1′s lack of snacks. The M. Wells Dinette conceptual Mike Kelley menu was admirable, but would it kill PS1 to sell a girl a croissant or fruit cup? I traveled all the way to Queens for this.
Mike Kelley at PS1.
Thankfully, we missed the Turrell retrospective at the Gug (heard the lines were unbearable even if the hole was amazing) in favor of seeing the exhibition in full splendor at LACMA. Apparently the artist, an LA native, made moves to stem the line issue by limiting the amount of guests allowed through the exhibition each day (and no photos allowed!). By the time my party of 5 arrived at LACMA , the $25 exhibition was completely sold out for the day. It was only through the loophole of student membership and my lovely friend, Conor Fields, that I was even able to see the exhibition. The antidote to the packed Kelley exhibition, my first glimpse of Afrum (White), the exemplary white cube that is the first of many light installations, was as religious an art experience as I’ve ever felt.
#today in (art) history
Carrie Mae Weems, The Assassination of Medger, Malcom, and Martin, 2008. Archival pigment print, 61 x 51 inches. Courtesy Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.
Other works, such as “Bullwinkle,” a modest projection in the shape of an antique television screen, featured plaques helpfully suggesting minimal viewing times to aid visitors in experiencing the desired effects of Turrell’s complex combinations of light and color. Guests moved leisurely through the exhibition. The immersive installations were smartly punctuated with wall-based work, such as the artistâ€™s delicate aqua-tint etchings and hologram series. Despite the 20 minute wait, the paramount moment of the exhibition was Breathing Light (2013), a absorptive environment that mindfucks you in an entirely angle than Kelley’s Pay for Your Pleasure. Heats of eight are invited to take their shoes off, don booties, and spend five minutes in the space which features rounded walls and a deeply saturated bath of LED light that slowly gradients between red and blue. Shout out to the world’s best docent, Rikki Williams, for doing an impeccable job at keeping the antsy visitors to Breathing Light in check (and for letting me stay an extra minute).
LA’s other most famous dude, Frank Ghery, also deserves a shoutout for the unbelievably well designed Calder exhibition in the same building as Breathing Light and the other (reservation only) large-scale immersive Turrell spaces. Having seen a couple of attempts of shoving a bunch of mobiles and stabiles into a large room (including the MCA’s most recent attempt), I can truthfully say I’ve never seen a better presentation of the artists work. Ghery’s specially built pedestals wind around the gallery and create niches that isolate and accommodate each piece. His specially designed walls and plinths allow the viewer to see the delicate balance present in individual works instead of a mess of primary colored circles and wires hanging everywhere.
You’re okay too, Wei Wei.
Not to be outdone by other major metropolitan areas massive surveys of mostly male work, the Perez Museum of Art Miami (still known to me as the Miami Art Museum) opened it doors in December with an inaugural retrospective by Ai Wei Wei. While the exhibition has a few highlights, I found the smaller retrospective of works by little known Cuban modernist, Amelia PelÃ¡ez, to be a far more compelling and apt exhibition for the brand new bayside contemporary art museum.
Painting by PelÃ¡ez at PAMM.
I thought the inclusion of the furniture was a little much, but I loved the objects made by PelÃ¡ez herself. Her ceramic work epitomizes the bright colors and modern, bold markings of her still-life paintings on shapely vases and cups. I would take the espresso set. The show was thoughtfully put together and I was delighted to learn of the artistâ€™s life and work. Now I just wish I could go back in time to Cuba and see her Havana Hilton Hotel mural.
Back in Chicago, Iâ€™m waiting on my invite for what will be either the awesomest or worstest retrospective in Chicago history: David Bowie Is. Stay tuned.
Header image features Breathing Light, 2013, by James Turrell at LACMA.
Still from Faith Wildingâ€™s â€œWaitingâ€ performance as seen in the 1974 film â€œWomanhouseâ€ by Johanna Demetrakas, (1974, USA, 47 min.) (courtesy of Johanna Demetrakas and Three Walls Gallery).
The Weekly debuts with hilarious email chain. Sunday was a big day for Chicago poet, Anthony Opal. Not only did he trudge through the snow to talk drama with Sofia Leiby at Devening Projects, he also launched The Weekly with some “Revolutionary Interactive Storytelling” by the very entertaining and all around solid dude, Fred Sasaki. Enjoy.
Martin Heidegger, the enormously influential 20th century continental philosopher, writes in his essay â€œThe Origin of the Work of Art,â€ that â€œto be a work means to set up a world.â€  At first blush, this statement seems to coincide with the work that Turrell provides for us as viewer. Then, the question becomes: what is a world, the world? For Heidegger, world is not just an accumulation of objects that exist in the world, a totality of beings, nor is it merely the â€œregionâ€ where these beings exist. Rather, Heidegger defines world as where a being whose being is of concern for it, Dasein, lives as Dasein. This world has various possibilities including that of â€œpublicâ€ world and oneâ€™s â€œownâ€ world.  These questions of world are significant to Turrellâ€™s works. How do his installations world a world for us? Further, what is the relationship of his works to truth? Do his works enable us to gain access to truth of this world?
It may seem dry to delve into an examination of Turrellâ€™s installation work in terms of Heidegger, but that this may be a moment where the particular issues surrounding worldliness and truth should be addressed instead of the oft discussed perception, reality, and illusion themes. Turrellâ€™s work, whose material is that of light, space, and perception, can be easily read as illusion, that the works merely play with the frailty or faultiness of human perception. However, this cannot and should not be the main theme we grasp onto. Experiencing his work opens up the perceptual space that allows us to examine our being-in-the-world and our relational condition. What Iâ€™d like to argue briefly is that Turrellâ€™s works, particularly the early Projection Pieces, create situations of veiling and unveiling, which for Heidegger are tantamount to discovering and truth. These pieces, in their perceptual complexities, point to our relational nature, our being as Dasein.
James Turrell. Afrum (White). 1967. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum Collection. http://www.guggenheim.org/new-york/collections/collection-online/artwork/4084
Light Explained Away
In a general survey of the literature on Turrell, there are multiple mentions of perceptual psychology and phenomenology, with perceptual psychology, considered as science, taking precedence. When phenomenology is referenced, only Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Edmund Husserl are addressed. Martin Heidegger, a student of Husserl and a major figure in philosophical phenomenology is generally left out of these discussions.Â Instead of grounding Turrellâ€™s work in the ontological foundation of Being, his work seems to be merely referenced as influenced by phenomenology, particularly of Merleau-Ponty. Turrellâ€™s work, however, canâ€™t just be taken as a product of phenomenology influence; his work participates in theÂ exploration of this philosophy as it relates to our existential being, our being-in-the-world as Dasein, translated literally as being there.
In Heideggerâ€™s Being and Time, he attempts to tackle the problem of being, of ontology. He says that in order to address this question, we first need to establish who is asking the question. This being is Dasein, the being whose being is of concern for her. Closing Division I of the book â€” â€œThe Preparatory Fundamental Analysis of Daseinâ€ â€” is Â§44, â€œDasein, Disclosedness, and Truth.â€ In this section, he lays out the traditional concept of truth, which relies on the statementâ€™s being in agreement with the object in the world that is external to us, and proposes a more primordial theory of truth which is unconcealing, or in Greek, á¼€Î»Î®Î¸ÎµÎ¹Î±. This formulation of truth as an unveiling, uncovering, unconcealing, depends upon Dasein; fundamentally, truth depends on the being whose being is of concern for it. He does warn, though, that this is not an arbitrary subjectivism. 
Before analyzing Turrellâ€™s work, especially Afrum (White), 1967 in relation to Heideggerâ€™s theory of truth, allow me to briefly outline a couple of terms: phenomenon, semblance, appearance.
Heidegger describes phenomenon as â€œwhat shows itself in itself,â€ which is distinct from both semblance (the possibility of beings showing themselves as not themselves) and appearance (â€œsomething which does not show itself announces itself through something that does show itselfâ€).  These are all made possible, however, by light, illumination: â€œâ€˜phenomena,â€™ are thus the totality of what lies in the light of day or can be brought to light.â€ 
In Being and Time, the figure of light takes on the meaning of Daseinâ€™s coming into disclosedness. Heidegger states that
â€œTo say that it is â€œilluminatedâ€ means that it is cleared in itself as being-in-the-world, not by another being, but in such a way that it is itself the clearing [Lichtung]. Only for a being thus cleared existentially do objectively present things become possible in the light or concealed in darkness.â€ 
In his marginal notes, the first â€œclearedâ€ is marked with an asterisk, which adds â€œá¼€Î»Î®Î¸ÎµÎ¹Î± â€” openness â€” clearing, light, shining.â€ Â Important to this discussion of light is the notion of â€œradianceâ€ which figures prominently in Heideggerâ€™s essay that appeared ten years after Being and Time, â€œThe Origin of the Work of Art.â€ Radiance here entails a shining forth or an emanation, something in excess. Â Taken in relation to Turrellâ€™s work, his light becomes excessive; it points to its own immaterial limitations, a gesture that pushes us to consider the betweenness and limitations of being. Andrew Mitchell discusses this betweenness that arises in Heideggerâ€™s examinations of Ernst Barlachâ€™s sculpture: â€œBeing takes place between presence and absence, at the surface where the being extends beyond itself and enters the world. Being takes place at the limit of the thing â€” understanding limit as Heidegger does, not as where something ends but where it begins.â€ 
In the case of Turrellâ€™s Afrum (White), how do these terms of phenomenon, semblance, and appearance function? Where does illusion factor in? What of the truth in the perceptual experience? What about the spatial relations of the between and the limit? Many of these questions that Turrellâ€™s work poses get addressed through phenomenology, but, as mentioned above, it is normally that of Merleau-Ponty and Husserl. There is an easy case for these two phenomenologists, particularly Merleau-Ponty because of his explicit focus on the corporeality of perception and experience, which can easily address the structure of perceiving Turrellâ€™s installations. Merleau-Pontyâ€™s Phenomenology of Perception allows for the human body to actively participate in our experience and knowledge of the world. This sentiment echoes in Turrellâ€™s reply to the question: â€œAre your works primarily visual experiences for the person who visits the space, not translations of your experiences?â€:
â€œYes. Of course, it takes somebody’s vision to have set that up, so the artist does create and limit the universe of possibilities, and within that you’re on your own. In that sense it is like any other art. But it does demand a certain decision to deal with it, which is this art’s price of admission. But every art, I feel, has a price of admission, and often many people don’t pay it.Â They end up looking at the work rather than into it. I think that’s the biggest problem with contemporary art for a large portion of America. America hasn’t learned it has to pay the price of admission, to look into it rather than just at it.â€ 
Something more may need to be accounted for, however. Is it a matter of what we can know about our experience or what we can discover about our being? Heideggerâ€™s ontological project, which may always be on the verge of falling into a metaphysics, should still remain an important aspect of our questions about art and experience. What we may need to consider when experiencing these installations is that they create conditions for Daseinâ€™s disclosedness. The installations donâ€™t just make us aware of the mechanics of perception, they make us aware of our being-in-the-world. The method of phenomenology leads us to ontological distinctions, and these distinctions shouldnâ€™t be ignored.
James Turrell. Aten Reign. 2013.
The Truth in Illusion
Dawna Schuld, along with many other critics, talk about Turrellâ€™s Afrum (White) as illusion; Schuld even juxtaposes the piece to the famous Necker Cube, the line drawing of a cube that switches orientations. In her essay for Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface, â€œPractically Nothing: Light, Space, and the Pragmatics of Phenomenology,â€ she describes the perceptual experiences Turrell creates for the viewer in Acton (1976) and Afrum (White):
â€œWhat follows is the delightful awareness that one can return to the illusion simply by repositioning oneâ€™s body vis-Ã -vis the sensing space. This ability to consciously hold perception in flux is also a characteristic of many of Turrellâ€™s projection pieces, notably the Afrum â€œcube,â€ which like a Necker illusion can be cognitively manipulated to invert into its corner or revert into a projected cube that juts out toward us, while with a step to the left or the right it â€œrotates.â€ Not one interpretation achieves primacy.â€ 
Further, she claims that â€œ[t]he intentional object is no longer the image on the wall but rather the ways in which we can manipulate our own perceptual mechanisms, within given circumstances.â€ Â Though operative in the works, these claims keep us with the intentional structure of perception Husserl develops, which differ for Heidegger. In viewing Turrellâ€™s work, it is a being-toward, not necessarily a manipulation. Manipulation brings with it the structure of power and control, which isnâ€™t the same thing as unconcealing through the disclosedness of Dasein.
Nancy Marmerâ€™s 1981 review of Turrellâ€™s exhibition at the Whitney, James Turrell: Light and Space, focuses on the â€œchilling art of deceptionâ€ which is Turrellâ€™s â€œmore rigorous, even didactic, aspect to [his work] that tends to be ignored.â€ Â This attention to illusion or deception isnâ€™t specific to Marmer. From that same year, Wolfgang Zimmerâ€™s review in ARTnews is titled â€œNow You See It, Now You…â€ Â This is important. Questions about being and truth are glossed over when the work is only described as illusion and deception, simple plays of perception. This is too simplistic to fully describe Turrellâ€™s work. Rather, it is the interplay of appearance, semblance, and phenomenon (in Heideggerâ€™s sense: of something showing itself from itself in itself). It is not a simple either/or situation, where you either see the illusion, or the â€œtrueâ€ material conditions of the piece. The totality of this situation of being-with the piece is the truth of the work, its unconcealedness in the disclosure of Dasein, our being as being-in-the-world.
Turrell claims that â€œhe is not trying to fool the viewer.â€ Â Craig Adcock references Turrellâ€™s rejection of â€œillusionâ€ to describe his work quoting Turrell: â€œPeople have talked about illusion in my work, but I donâ€™t feel it is an illusion because what you see alludes to what in fact it really is â€” a space where the light is markedly different.â€  This statement may coincide with one of Heideggerâ€™s from the work of art essay, that the â€œwork lets the earth be earth,â€ earth here meaning foundation of world that is not merely matter. Â Afrum (White) doesnâ€™t merely point to the way our perception may trick us, it instead opens up world as worldliness. In the measurement or, shall I say, rational description of Turrellâ€™s works, the work disappears. Only in remaining concealed as a totality can it allow for the disclosure of Dasein as being-in-the-world: â€œColor shines and wants only to shine. When we analyze it in rational terms by measuring its wavelengths, it is gone. It shows itself only when it remains undisclosed and unexplained.â€ 
James Turrell. Aten Reign. 2013.
In a world where government shuts down and the NSA surveils our telecommunications because everyone is dissembling as a terrorist, what does it mean for us to consider the unveiling of the world? What is the relationship between surveil and unveil? The surveil, the on top of the veil, still maintains the veil of concealedness. Information-gathering does not get us any closer to truth. Maybe itâ€™s time to think of other ways to be in the world. Dancing with the projected light in the corner of the gallery allows me to experience the work of Afrum (White), with work meaning the â€œsetting forth,â€ which entails a setting to work of truth. I move around the piece, seeing it this way, seeing it that way. It clears the space for my being as a being in this space with this light and with these others that are also in this space with me. I am in this gallery, in this museum, in this city, in this country, in this world, choosing to move with this lighted corner that has unveiled itself as a work of art. Is this choice a narcissism or a solipsism? A nihilism? I would argue no; my perceptual experience with this work has to involve all others that participated in its making and those that are viewing it alongside me.
In the atrium of the Guggenheim, Turrellâ€™s Aten Reign, encourages us to sit together and decide upon the truth of what we are experiencing. This work has drawn some highly critical reception, comparing it poorly to the collective experience of Olafur Eliassonâ€™s The weather project for example. What both of these projects offer us is the sun, the ability to sit and stare at the sun, the light that burns us. â€œAtenâ€ of Aten Reign, is Aten, or Aton, the highly controversial Egyptian god of the sun and refers to the disk/orb of the sun itself. This reference to the sun brings us to another important aspect of Turrellâ€™s work: his references to the Allegory of the Cave in Platoâ€™s Republic. In this allegory, prisoners are trapped in a cave and can only see objects of the world as shadows on the cave wall â€” puppets backlit by fire controlled by puppeteers. If a prisoner is set free, her first experience of the true sun beyond the darkness of the cave is so overpowering and blinding that â€œhe [sic] will suffer sharp pains; the glare will distress [him], and he [sic] will be unable to see the realities of which in his [sic] former state he [sic] had seen the shadow.â€  This pain makes the prisoner turn away and seek refuge back in the cave where the shadows are more familiar.
What Aten Reign may give us is the space to look into the light without pain. It is a foggy light and may dissemble with its changing colors, but it shows itself in such a way that maybe we can spend the necessary time with it in order to let in unveil itself. Turrell may, in a sense, occupy the position of the puppeteer, but he also opens the opportunity for us to look at the blinding light. One could argue that his skyspaces do this better, and that may be true, but they are also indirect gazes at the sun.
I secretly took a photograph of the installation (I know I wasnâ€™t supposed to). Only later did I realize that a thin veneer of dust and grime had covered the camera lens on my phone. The image that I have of this experience of mine is blurry, foggy, a hazy memory that prompts me to consider what it was that I really experienced.
Â Martin Heidegger, â€œThe Origin of the Work of Art,â€ in Basic Writings, ed. David Farrell Krell (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1993), 170.
Â Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. Joan Stambaugh with revisions by Dennis J. Schmidt (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2010), 65.
Â Ibid., 227.
Â Ibid., 28-29.
Â Ibid., 28.
Â Ibid., 133.
Â Andrew Mitchell, Heidegger Among the Sculptors: Body, Space, and the Art of Dwelling (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010),10.
Â Ibid., 23.
Â Richard Andrews, James Turrell: Sensing Space (Seattle: Henry Gallery Association, 1992), 37.
Â Dawna Schuld, â€œPractically Nothing: Light, Space, and the Pragmatics of Phenomenology,â€ in Robin Clark (ed.), Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2011), 116-118.
Â Ibid., 118.
Â Nancy Marmer, â€œJames Turrell: The Art of Deception,â€ Art in America, vol. 69 (May 1981), 97.
Â Wolfgang Zimmer, â€œNow you see it, Now you…,â€ ARTnews, vol. 80 (Feb 1981): 225.
Â Craig Adcock, James Turrell: The Art of Light and Space (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1990), 12.
Â Turrell interview with Julia Brown in Occluded Front, James Turrell, quoted in Adcock, 13.
Letâ€™s talk about James Turrell.Â Yeah, its been a while, hasnâ€™tÂ it?Â Heâ€™s still out there, digging away at Roden Crater.Â 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.Â It was the first time Iâ€™d really gotten to experience Turrellâ€™s work in person, which is (more than with any other artist) the only way to see it.Â It is really unlike any other art viewing Iâ€™ve ever experienced.
James Turrell:Â A Retrospective, at LACMA, is divided into two parts.Â Part 1 is a retrospective of projections and hollows, some dating as far back as the 1960s.Â 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.Â We walked into the mostly dark room and moved around a bit, and yeah, itâ€™s trippy, it looks like itâ€™s 3d.Â 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.Â Following his advice, I started over.Â Closing one eye, heâ€™d told me, helps the illusion (by eliminating binocular vision, you get rid of some of the visual cues that tell you whatâ€™s closer and whatâ€™s farther away).Â I also found that removing my eyeglasses reduced the focus enough that things like wall texture disappear, which also helped.Â 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.Â This mirrors the way objects appear smaller as they get farther away, creating the phenomenon we call two-point perspective.Â The neat thing is that the illusion not only remains, but in fact becomes more and more convincing, as one moves about the room.Â Slowly, keeping my one uncovered eye trained on the projection, I walked across the room, watching the apparent cube rotate in the darkened room.Â 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.Â Turrell also produced a series of holograms, on display here, and the exhibition might give some hope to those working to preserve SAICâ€™s holography program.Â But the real money shot is in Part 2.Â We actually viewed Part 2 first, having been advised by a friend whoâ€™d seen the show that as it got later in the day the lines would get longer.Â Entering Part 2, we walked past the â€œPerceptual Cell,â€ a sort of Bathysphere-like contraption deigned to immerse one viewer at a time in an environment of colored light.Â Unfortunately, the piece required separate tickets beyond the separate tickets required for the rest of Turrellâ€™s show, and they were both expensive (eighty bucks, I think) and sold out long before we had planned our trip to LA.Â (Even the remainder of Turrellâ€™s show required separate tickets which had sold out for the day by the time we arrived at 11:45, but weâ€™d bought ours in advance.)
For the rest of us, the heart of Part 2 was a 2011 piece called Purusa.Â After standing in line in a darkened hallway, shephered by security, we entered a sort of foyer.Â A long bench ran along one wall, with cubbies beneath for shoe storage.Â We were asked to take off our shoes and don little white booties while we waited.Â 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.Â The light in that space gradually changed, and gave those in it a sort of halo of a second color.Â 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.Â 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.Â Opposite the entry door is an open wall, opening into a space with a bare wall a few feet back.Â The room itself is let by bars of colored LEDs around the door, while the far wall is lit separately.Â The room is kept fairly dim, the far wall more brightly lit.Â 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.Â 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.Â Okay, frankly, it made me think of the door to a shuttle bay in the Rebel base on Hoth.Â It had that bright, blank, vast, strangely-colored, polar sort of feel.Â At least at first.
Spending some time in the space, these physical associations began to diminish.Â 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.Â And I stared blankly into space, into color, into light.Â It occurred to me that looking at Turrellâ€™s installation felt a lot like how I look at a Rothko painting.Â 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.Â I was there by myself, no timeline to speak of, and thatâ€™s when I figured out how to look at a Rothko.Â 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.Â Aah, there it is.Â Now you can look at it.Â Not that you can actually see it, not yet, but you can start to look.Â 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.Â Rothko paints with what, at least to me, looks like a disregard for the paint.Â He paints like he wishes it was light.Â And, after a few minutes of staring, thatâ€™s what it becomes, thatâ€™s what it is.Â It occurs to you, that you arenâ€™t seeing paint, that you can never see paint, that you can never see anything at all, except light.Â 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 itâ€™s just light hitting your brain.Â Thatâ€™s how you look at a Rothko.Â Itâ€™s drugs, man.Â Itâ€™s drugs.
So you step inside the Turrell and everythingâ€™s weird, youâ€™re thinking about Hoth and looking down at your hands, that weird marbling, dark blood and pale fat showing through the translucent skin, and youâ€™re thinking about drugs, and light, and the color slowly, gradually changes.Â You suspect gradients, and question relationships.Â Look behind you, back through the door by which you came.Â Come on, art school kids, youâ€™ve done this before.Â You know the light out there was white, or white-ish, a warm white Iâ€™d call â€œInstitutional Incandescent.â€Â The whole time you sat out there, it never changed, so you know it isnâ€™t changing now.Â 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.Â And you remember your 2D design class, your color theory.Â 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.Â But itâ€™s not.Â Itâ€™s green.Â Itâ€™s fucking green.Â Green is its color.
So Turrellâ€™s inside your fucking head, and heâ€™s got a ballpein hammer and a pair of tin snips, and heâ€™s just sort of banging away and cutting shit, seeing what happens.Â And you donâ€™t know whether he knows.Â Is he like some Dr. Mengele, Dr. Moreau, mad scientist type, experimenting on us, blindly?Â 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?Â Of course not.Â Thatâ€™s fucking silly.Â Heâ€™s just an old man, an artist, probably a bit of a hippie, or maybe weâ€™re just stereotyping based on the long, gray beard.Â Maybe heâ€™s a wizard.
There is, undeniably, something about Turrellâ€™s work that makes you feel like thereâ€™s an experiment going on, and youâ€™re not sure if youâ€™re a peer reviewer examining the results, or a subject providing data.Â In this thereâ€™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.Â 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.Â 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, Turrellâ€™s got this place, Roden Crater, out near my new digs in Flagstaff, Arizona.Â And you canâ€™t go there.Â Neither can I, for that matter.Â Itâ€™s pretty tightly guarded, and while you can find it on a map, generally, the exact location is a pretty closely guarded secret.Â I saw a lecture the Psychology department at Northern Arizona University (where I now teach) put on about Turrellâ€™s work, and it was such a tease, the presenter sort of apologized for getting us all hard and sending us home with blueballs.Â So far, the only people who can go out there, unless you â€œknow somebody,â€ are people who have supported the project through purchases of major works.Â As for the general public?Â Itâ€™s anyoneâ€™s guess.Â Wikipedia cites an article, from 2007, as saying Turrell intends to open the place for public viewingâ€¦in 2007.
I was reading about James Turrell’s epic series of museum shows inÂ The New York TimesÂ recently and recalled a moment of my own recollection of his work.
It’s simple enough: I follow The Mattress Factory on Twitter. On November 26th, they tweeted an image of a room being painted.
I suppose because they mentioned that the lights were actually on, I assumed it referred to Turrell’s pitch black piece,Â PleiadesÂ (1983). (It does not â€” as I was told later, but bear with me, I’ll account for that discrepancy in the end).
I understood it to be a picture of a James Turrell’sÂ PleiadesÂ (1983)Â installation getting repainted. The image drastically transformed my reaction to the installation. Indeed, I had such a profound reaction to the tiny, banal image, I pulled it off twitter, and put it on my desktop where it has been sitting ever since.
There is no reason that that image should be particularly captivating. It is a familiar enough: gallery walls must constantly be painted and repainted, and if it didn’t have anything to do with Turrell, it would hardly be of interest. However, appearing as it did within the context of social media (and all the misunderstandings tweets can lead to) that is exactly why it made my jaw drop: because this tiny image challenged everything I had assumed via sensory experience of Pleiades.
Pleiades, is the first of Turrell’s “dark pieces.” At The Mattress Factory, as I recall, you go up an elevator and on the designated floor, you go through a doorway, down a pitch black corridor and into a pitch black room. You stop a metal rail. I have visited this room about three or four times over the course of ten years. Each time that one room has baffled me.
I went there first as a Sophomore in college with a group of friends. One friend in particular was an upper classman and seemed to have a better handle on contemporary culture. As such we deferred to his authority; to do so was pleasant; he rattled on about various rumors (and possibly fictions) that seemed to walk a tightrope between gossip, mysticism and art history. As someone with very little contact to contemporary art at the time, I relied on the banter of my peers to overcome whatever sense of alienation I might carry into unfamiliar situations. Standing in a pitch black room for an indefinite period of seemed both provocative and confusing. If I thought about it too much I wouldn’t know what I was doing there. Still the narrative of the artist had me intrigued. Stories about Turrell’s alleged arrest for helping young men dodge the draft. His Quaker background. His life in California that yielded an interest in minimalism, light, and science. Â As I prepared myself to walk down this very dark corridor in the year 2000, I was told that at the end, in the pitch black (and if I waited long enough) I would begin to see light, like stars (I thought), or a halo. My friend suggested it was the result of a primordial and biological fear of nothingness.
Whatever his prescribed cause, this is what is supposed to happen:
It never happened to me.Â I waited in the dark for that thing to take place for about thirty minutes. Or maybe it was an hour. It could have also been 10 minutes that were simply so distilled from movement that they slowed and lengthened my sense of time. As I waited, all of my attention strained toward an event that was supposed to take place within my body and end up projected outwards, as a type of vision. I waited to see a white eye-shape in the dark. I was excited at first, and then defeated, slightly. Nothing happened. I remembered looking at countlessÂ Magic Eye posters in dorm rooms; I could never make out the subliminal texts/images in those either, no matter how many times I had been instructed to fuzz out my vision with the image pressed up against my nose.
Subsequent visits toÂ PleiadesÂ were no different. No vision appeared before me in the dark. Because I no longer expected it, however, I had grown more interested in thinking about the darkness that space afforded. I suppose I still waited, in an almost existential way, for something to happen, but the sense of waiting became more interesting than the event I waited for. I realized that the whole project of PleiadesÂ was existential â€” whether something emerged in the darkness or not. I began to appreciate the feeling of that darkness, the way it seemed to extend endlessly, the slight terror at its unknown breadth. I distinctly recall a very faint breeze which enhanced the dimension of the room, but that too could have been my imagination. I preferred to inhabit the space by myself, perhaps it seemed more noble that way. When strangers came and stood beside me, I was Â distracted by my attempts to anticipate their movements and, even, their physical shape. Remember, it’s impossible to see anything, even another form. It was more complicated to inhabit an Unknown when others, particularly people you don’t know, are trying to do the same. On several occasions, I accidentally stepped on a foot and had to apologize, breaking the spell of silence through my clumsy, miscalculated movement. The moment of contact, my foot on the strangers, the exclamation of paint â€” it established a common, temporal location in the room, overshadowing the otherwise relentless blankness everywhere else. I stepped back. Held my breath for a moment and settled again into my feet. The room would grow still once more and with it our sense of the darkness grew. At times it felt oppressive, at others benign, certainly it felt ambivalent towards me. It was larger, more constant and self-assured than I was. I sort of enjoyed being intimidated by it â€” because I began to develop a relationship with that room. I didn’t see any lights, but the darkness became “something.” I’ve ever experienced such spatial endlessness. And while I never saw those lights, there was some part of me that enjoyed the incongruity of my own experience; perhaps I felt I had a more “true” experience because it seemed more nihilistic to experience nothing.
You can imagine then, what shock that tiny jpeg. of boys painting a room would give me. It looks like they could be inÂ a closet! I was so shocked at the thought that I had misunderstood the room, I instantly believed it to be true. The vague confirmation provided by the tweet-conversation I had with The Mattress Factory seemed to confirm my sense, which was so exuberant as to lack self-consciousness, that everything I assumed to be true about that dark room was wrong in so far as it could haveÂ existed in a tiny-tiny-tiny room.Â I realized that even though I did not see “the light” I was still projecting dimension and psychology into Turrell’s darkness. It was affecting me. I was affecting myself through the medium of darkness provided byÂ Pleiades.
As I said, I since learned this is not Pleiades itself, but ratherÂ an image of the elevator landing on the Turrell floor of the Mattress Factory. While the true dimensionality of that roomÂ remains a mystery, I am all the more certain of the evocative uncertainty it yields.
Pleiades is a Dark Piece where the realm of night vision touches the realm of eyes-closed vision, where the space generated is substantially different than the physical confines and is not dependent upon it, where the seeing that comes from ‘out there’ merges with the seeing that comes from ‘in here,’ where the seeing develops over and through dark adaptation but continues beyond it. It is the first piece in a series of works. While it relates to the last piece of the Mendota Stoppages, 1969-70, in that it develops over time, it is definitely a departure in that after the seeing develops, it is no longer static.Â The thing that gave me the idea to do this was the fact that I needed to work with very low levels of light for the night seeing in the crater piece. The last time that I had really worked in that arena was with the Mendota Stoppages where I had some very dark pieces that took a long time of dark adaptation, sometimes as much as fifteen minutes. When you actually had that seeing, though, the space that was generated was a static space â€“ you saw it and could walk in it, but it didn’t change. In this work, what is generated in you and what is actually out there become a little more equal.Â - James Turrell, The Mattress Factory