I See The Body (Of Light) Electric: James Turrell at LACMA
January 23, 2014
Afrum (White) (1966)

James Turrell: A Retrospective at The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is an expansive show featuring works by James Turrell from over five decades.  Using a variety of techniques, Turrell has attempted to elucidate the "seeing that occurs within"; in creating an environment where reality collaborates with the visitor's subjective perception, what Turrell refers to as the "thing-ness of light…itself becomes a revelation."  LACMA's show spans light projections (such as Cross Corner Projections where Turrell projects light onto corners creating the semblance of objects, Space Division Constructions where light creates a sense of surface across an actual opening, and Wedgeworks that use architecture to frame light), prints, drawings and models of his Roden Crater project, holograms, as well as immersive environments.  I had the wonderful opportunity to experience three immersive environments (Light Reignfall, Dark Matters and Breathing Light)--each contemplative, revelatory and mind-blowing in their own ways.

Light Reignfall (2011) is essentially akin to an Aten Reign (2013) on fast forward for one.  Not for claustrophobes, the work is from the Perceptual Cell series, which are enclosed structures that provide single-viewer experiences.  From the outside, the structure looks like a globular MRI apparatus.  A white lab-coated attendant asked me to choose between a "hard" or "soft" program (I chose the former), and handed me a very detailed (but extremely comprehensive and well-written!) waiver to sign.  Having taken my shoes and spectacles off, and given a "panic" button lanyard and headphones, I was slid into the chamber.  In the next 12 minutes, a light program enfolded before my eyes, while a constant noise emanated through the headphones.  I initially panicked, as I perceived the intensely hued blankets of light layer onto my eyes like multi-colored blindfolds.  Eventually, however, I settled into letting the pulsating light wash over me.  While I kept my eyes open at all times, the experience of seeing in the Perceptual Cell was similar to the experience of closing one's eyes really tightly and seeing colorful bursts--a phenomenon that is apparently known as phosphenes.  Strangely enough, the experience felt extremely short, and of course, singular and unique.  

Light Reignfall (2011), installation view at Garage Center for Contemporary Culture

After coming out of Light Reignfall, I experienced an entirely different kind of perception experiment through Dark Matters (2011).  This work is from Turrell's Dark Space series (which Turrell describes as facilitating the difficulty of
"[differentiating] between seeing from the inside and seeing from the outside").  Directed by a wonderful guide with a calming voice, I was led through a snaky unlit corridor into a pitch black room and asked to sit down.  After what seemed like a few minutes of staring into complete nothingness, my eyes adjusted to focus on a faint glow far off in the distance.   Contemplative yet still unnerving, the experience allowed me to focus on how my eyes adjust to the environment around me.

The last work I experienced was Breathing Light (2013), an entire room.  In fact, you need to line up in an external corridor, then wait in a corral area, and then ritualistically enter the temple to light that is the work.  It's a Ganzfeld--the German term for "entire field"--where being inside the space deprives you of all clues as to any sense of direction or depth.  In comparison to the other two immersive works, Breathing Light was extremely calming and peaceful.  Having experienced an afternoon of Turrell, I was reminded that Alain de Botton commented in Art as Therapy that Turrell is a "choreographer of experience [we] might have" and not a recorder of an experiences he once had.  And master choreographer he most certainly is.

I was reminded that one of Turrell's Skyscapes is installed very close to home.  Open during certain afternoons, it's Meeting (1978), created in MoMA PS1 since 1986.  A parting image from my experience of the work in 2012:


Summer sky seen through Meeting (1978), MoMA PS1 in 2012

James Turrell: A Retrospective is on view at LACMA until April 6, 2014.

All images (except Meeting) by Florian Holzherr, courtesy of LACMA
All works © James Turrell