newsletter link
mondo arc

A Retrospective

Issue 86 August / September 2015

Andre Tammes reviews this exceptionally popular and successful exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, which drew crowds from across Australia and internationally. This was a unique opportunity to experience and understand the work of the world’s leading artist and explorer in light.  

In writing this I recognise that many readers engage with light on a professional basis. When considered in the context of James Turrell’s work, this is both a benefit and a handicap. The benefit lies in the reality that most lighting people will want to know the facts and come to understand the technique of his art; the handicap is that this very quest for the apparent certainty of knowledge, rather than the uncertainty of experience, negates Turrell’s central objective. 

I visited this major exhibition in Canberra twice. On the first occasion I was part of a group of Australian lighting designers; much of the discussion over dinner dwelt on questions and potential answers – what is the technology used, why do things appear to be what they are not and how much of what one sees is actually there rather than being a product of one’s mind? Being forewarned and forearmed, I conducted my second visit on a less analytic and more immersive basis. My belief is that this is the only fulfilling way in which to experience Turrell’s work. In some ways this makes it challenging to write about; perhaps there should only be one enjoinder – place a personal immersion in his work high on your priority list! 

This exhibition reached back some five decades and, with its three 2013 counterparts which ran concurrently at the Los Angeles County Museum of Arts, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum New York, it reflected Turrell’s development as an artist, perceptual psychologist, aviator, scientist, mathematician and historian. This heady mix of knowledge, investigation, research and creativity delivers an ineffable outcome to those who are fortunate enough to connect with it; little can prepare one for either the experience or one’s reactions.

The exhibition comprised 20 exhibits. These included wall hung pieces such as four small holograms, a series of paper based prints and drawings, projected and constructed exhibits, the dark exhibit rooms, the single person occupancy Bindu shards (2010) sphere and, at an extreme opposite scale, Within Without (2010), the example of Turrell’s Skyspace series which is permanently located in the grounds of the gallery. A section was also dedicated to the long-term development of his work at the Roden Crater in Arizona, USA. 

The one certainty that underpins all of Turrell’s work lies in his use of light to unlock his medium. Turrell commented: “For me, it’s about using light as a material to influence or affect the medium of perception.” His reference to the materiality of light or, as he also refers to it, the 'thingness' of light, introduces a paradox or a duality of thought. On the one hand and, as powerfully evidenced in Virtuality squared (2014), one of the series of Ganzfeld built spaces, the light itself has a palpable tangibility, whereas the exceptionally low level of light in Orca (1984) verges on the subliminal in its pursuit to test the boundaries of human sight and the accuracy, or dependability, of the seeing process.

Much of the reaction to Turrell lies in the temptation to try to unpack the seeming simplicity of his work. How can there be complexity in an art that lacks imagery, depiction, symbolism, offers no focus, is not an object in the material sense and cannot be defined as an expression of reality or, indeed, illusion? How is one meant to interpret such work, which does not even venture into the realm of abstraction? 

Perhaps one answer to this paradox is to realise that one does not see the work in the conventional sense of that word. This means that one has to consciously abandon a faculty upon which we are innately dependent – losing sight is neither easy nor comfortable – and in this regard Turrell is demanding. He requires your immersion, your time and a blend of subjectivity cut with heightened receptivity. Fail to deliver on any of these and you run the danger of not getting what it’s all about. 

However, providing that you were prepared to go for total immersion, this show allowed as full an understanding of Turrell’s thinking and creativity as has been offered to date.The chronology starts with Turrell’s birth into Quakerism. Quakers are known as ‘the children of light’ and seek to reach inside to greet light, literally and metaphorically. It is notable that much of his work has created internal spaces into which he brings light to allow one to meet and meditate with it. In 1966 he started to explore this process by renting a studio in a hotel in Santa Monica. The result was a series of early works centred on, and named after, the Mendota Hotel. Within various rooms, Turrell constructed a series of walls with apertures to allow the controlled entry of both natural and electric light projections and discovered “a universe of possibilities in light and ideas for a lifetime’s work.” It was at this time that he created a series of cross-corner projections – the projection of a highly defined beam of light diagonally across an enclosed rectilinear space, to the walls comprising the opposite corner or directly flat on to a single wall. An alternative non-projection technique based on the construction of a cross-corner aperture was also developed. Ultimately, the series comprised 25 works, including three shown in this exhibition, Afrum (white) (1966), Shanta II (blue) (1970) and Joecar (red) (1968).   

Afrum (white) (1966) creates the impression that one is looking at either a solid white cube, appearing to float well in front of the walls between which it is bound, or equally conceivably, an aperture in the walls from which radiates a white light. Either appears credible. Most viewers succumb to the need for confirmation – which is it? One way to be sure is to simply look up and locate the projector – the other (I noted several people doing this) is to walk into the corner to confirm the absence of an aperture. During my second visit I happily switched off and entertained the ambiguity. A seemingly similar floating cube, radiating a deep primary blue light, forms the Shanta II (blue) (1970) exhibit. Again, ambiguity abounds; this time close inspection reveals that a concisely dimensioned, and cut, aperture in the walls bounding the image is a window into a light filled rear chamber. Curiously, even the certain knowledge of this failed to dispel the lingering feeling that, from afar, I was nevertheless observing a solid.    

The other cross-corner projection, Joecar (red) (1968), spans a soft edged band of low intensity red / orange light from floor to ceiling. In this case the bounding walls appear to give way to a furnace like interior, which lies beyond the space from which one views it. Additionally, I found that, after some seven to eight minutes, the colour started to desaturate and be replaced with a central band of brown / grey. It occurred to me that my vision had perhaps partially switched from cone to rod processing and had entered the mesopic region. The low luminance value would support this theory.

These pieces demonstrate a constant in Turrell’s work. He rarely reveals the source of light, but rather sees it as his material; when you work with light, “you end up forming everything but it.”

The early days at the Mendota Hotel studio created foundations which have not changed in anything other than, in some instances, scale. The artist’s dedication to the process of bringing light to the within, the collateral creation of ambiguity and questioning, and the invitation to abandon preconception remain his hallmark. Many commentators have grappled with words to describe this process, and one’s responses to it, but perhaps Nancy Spector, Deputy Director and Chief Curator of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, put it particularly well: “Turrell’s light works give form to perception.”

After viewing the initial cross-corner projection and construction based exhibits, the 45-year-old Raemar pink white (1969) is almost overwhelming in its simplicity and scale (1070 x 440cm). This panel of pure pinkness floats within a frame of white light escaping from behind the rectangle. It invites you to plunge and dwell in it. Perhaps inevitably one makes parallels with large-scale contemporary monochromatic paintings, such as those by Yves Klein, but the difference is the radiance. This exhibit floats the rectangle into your space and compels immersion. After some minutes I gained the impression that the rectangle was flexing to form a slightly concave image. The big surprise was to come at the point of exit when, upon entering the adjacent gallery, the world became vividly green as a result of my retinal response to the after image from being immersed in a pink bath! Again, the origins of this shallow space construction can be traced back to the Mendota period where Turrell constructed a panel in front of an existing window and then allowed daylight to radiate around the perimeter of the panel. Once more, the inference is the bringing of outer light to the inner space and that of self.  

Arguably, one of the most testing exhibits was that which requires the viewer to become fully dark-adapted and invest at least ten minutes thereafter. One of the questions that came to mind relates to the diminution of the eye’s performance through the ageing process. When establishing light levels, particularly for these dark exhibits, how does Turrell, at age 72, judge such critically low levels? In conversation with the exhibition curator, Lucina Ward, it became clear that the artist works in close collaboration with his production team, which includes those with younger eyes.

The dark exhibit, After green (1993), is an example of Turrell’s Wedgework series. These works are strongly influenced by his experiences as a pilot. Having gained his licence at the age of sixteen, he has since spent much time in a plane, which he once described as being his studio. Connection with horizon and its omission are primary to his work, in many cases leading to the construction of celestial vaults in which horizon is absent but sky remains. All his Skyspace constructions and his work at the Roden Crater are founded on this principle.

In the case of this exhibit and the influence of flying Turrell stated: “Wedging occurs with a cold front and ‘shallow wedging' occurs with a warm front. As you approach a front there is a change in visibility, which happens very quickly if you fly towards it. When flying, this differentiation of vision happens through weather and water vapour. In Wedgework similar qualities of opacity, translucency and transparency are created by light simply inhabiting space.” 

The approach to the exhibit is dramatic, as one is guided into a near black tunnel that then opens into a chamber, totally dark other than the glowing exhibit which takes up a full wall. Here Turrell exercises his knowledge of retinal after-imaging and the associated shifts in colour perception. Time spent here induces a compelling blend of meditative calm and visual insecurity as the eye switches its focus from one plane of light and material to another or, as the artist would put it, from one front to another.

There is a total temptation to enter the exhibit (not allowed!) to seek its depth and embrace. Even if this were allowed, it would be potentially dangerous as evidenced by an earlier version of a Wedgework, which resulted in Turrell being sued by a viewer who suffered injury after having leaned against a non-existent wall.   

Many of the visitors to this exceptionally popular exhibition were those whose first contact with Turrell’s work was a visit to the Within without structure, completed in 2010. This is one of 89 Skyspace structures throughout the world. Located permanently in the Gallery’s Sculpture Garden the architecture of this space draws from many influences; the artist’s Quaker ethos of coming inside to greet the light, gaining access to the sky by taking the roof off a building, the early work at the Mendota Hotel studio where external light was leaked to the interior and his early appreciation of the stupa form, gained from time spent in his 20’s in Asia, particularly at Borobudur in Java. He retains a liking of roofless temples.   

Within without is entered down an inclined ramp, which draws one downward into the interior of a landscaped pyramid, surrounded on two sides by reflecting pools. Water continues internally, with a stupa centred in a surrounding turquoise pool bound by walls of Australian red ochre. A narrow bridge brings one to the final destination within the stupa. A circular bench (heated to allow for cold Canberra nights) allows the viewer to incline against a slightly sloping wall and look upward to the oculus, or sky eye, at the top of the dome. Although the architecture of the entire structure is inherently dramatic and intriguing at any time, it is during the transition between day and night that one comes to understand the central purpose of the exhibit. At this time Turrell captures the viewer for some 45 minutes whilst the sky progressively darkens (or, at dawn, lightens) in contrast with slowly unfolding layers of softly tinted uplighting to the dome that gently progress towards saturated colours. 

In discussion with lighting technologist, Richard Cale, who collaborates with Turrell to realise the artist’s aims in his Australian work, he describes the requirement to let go any consideration of what is actually happening or how it is being achieved; rather, says Cale, one has to 'inhale' the experience. There is no doubt that each of the, up to 24, people that can be accommodated within the stupa will experience their 45 minutes differently and that those have 'inhaled' will struggle to describe their experience. I can only say that, for me, the oculus did not maintain a steady diametre and that the sky colour and intensity shifted constantly in both directions. It is interesting to see how the Skyspace installation was engineered and programmed. Discussion with Cale reveals that the uplighting to the dome comprises a continuous, concealed, circular run of RGB LED, with a royal blue, plus a warm and a cool white. Programming was an arduous process involving multiple pre-dawn and dusk sessions as a range of cues and fade times were established. A long-term astronomic timing programme is used to recall these in relation to the solstices and equinoxes. In total there are four seasonal shows, which respond to the differing natural light and sky characteristics; these are advanced every second day in terms of timing.    

Bindu shards (2010) and Virtuality squared (2014) have nothing in common in terms of physical construction. The former is a six-metre diametre sphere, one of Turrell’s series of perceptual cells, and the latter a large room entered through a rectangular window. The common factor is ‘Ganzfeld’ – the German word meaning complete field. In these exhibits this is taken to mean a field of nothingness – akin to being in a whiteout where all visual reference is removed and all becomes indeterminate. Being in either space calls into question one’s visual faculties. 

Bindu shards (2010) requires that one signs a disclaimer, is provided with an emergency call button and puts on earphones. One then lies on a trolley and is fed into the sphere in a similar way to entering an MRI machine. At this stage one parts with normality and is plunged into a fifteen minute submersion described by Turrell as akin to “the jot or the spin that you see when you begin meditation; you stare at it or look at it like a visual mantra, and then it dissolves and will come back as you centre on it again. This work takes that effect and breaks it apart …. It is physiologically what we are. That’s why it is so invasive. Turrell describes the experience as ‘behind the eyes seeing', whilst the astronomer Dr. EC Krupp said: “what people see is not the dome but in the brain … intricate manipulation of retinal afterimages, as an effect generated by the retina’s photoreceptors. My recollection of submitting to this profoundly isolating experience leaves me with the feeling that I entered an intensely vivid dream – one so powerful that it created its own reality. This is Turrell’s intention when he talks of light joining together our dream world with our eyes open awakened state. Re-entry to the real world was difficult. Virtuality squared (2014) shares the same intense sense of disorientation – of the impression that there is just slowly dissolving light itself, no edge, no horizon, nothing to focus upon and only the window through which one has entered, seemingly shifting colour in response to retinal afterimaging. The difference between these two works is that in this case one shares the space with other viewers – but, again, it is like sharing space with others in a dream. Finally, in this exhibition Turrell provides much information about his master work in progress – the 1.6 kilometre diametre Roden Crater in Arizona. This naked eye observatory and monumental work of art is undoubtedly his culminating project. It contains and reflects all that has guided and inspired his work to date. Thus far six of the 20 chambers and spaces excavated into the inner cone of the 200-metre high crater have been completed.
This exhibition came at a time when the world continues to erupt in a celebration of light. No city is worthy without a light festival; light art is a burgeoning newcomer to the established arts scene and millions have opened their eyes to what appears to be a new art form. Turrell has spent the past 50 years going beyond this largely image or object based approach in favour of an art where: “There is, first of all, no object; there is no image, nor any place of focus. What are you then looking at? Well, I’m hoping that you then have the self-reflective act of looking at your looking, so that you’re actually seeing yourself see to some degree, so that it actually does reveal something about your seeing as opposed to being a journal of my seeing.”


Pics: National Gallery of Australia, John Gollings, Florian Holzherr


Related Articles


Follow us on…

Follow Mondo Arc Magazine on Twitter Follow Mondo Arc Magazine on Facebook Follow Mondo Arc Magazine on Linked In

mondo arc india

darc awards DWLF IALD PLDC LRO