The Time of James Turrell

'Deuce Coop', James Turrell, Barcelona

‘Deuce Coop’, James Turrell, Barcelona

  • by John Fagg

I was fortunate to spend part of this summer as a Fellow at the Huntington Library in Pasadena, just east of Los Angeles. Fortunate to be able to pursue my research ‒ for example to view an extensive collection of prints and drawings by John Sloan, an artist I write about and occasionally mention in my teaching ‒ but also to access experiences specific and unique to that place and time.

Among these was a visit to the Los Angeles County Art Museum (LACMA) to see a retrospective exhibition by the artist James Turrell. Turrell has close ties to LA and to LACMA. Much of what he has done in the last four decades stems from early 1960s experiments at the Mendota Hotel in Santa Monica (which he turned into a blacked-out studio) and his subsequent participation in the Museum’s 1968-69 “Art and Technology Program.” His involvement in this project included sensory deprivation in chambers designed to eradicate not just all light and sound but even the gentle, constant movements of the earth that provide a baseline for conscious experience. Summer 2013 was an important time for Turrell as alongside LACMA the Guggenheim New York and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston hosted coordinated exhibitions. Why this attention for this artist at this particular time?

Turrell’s work is concerned with light and with making light present. He creates gallery installations that include undulating light projected onto white walls, holograms that expand and disappear as you pass, and rooms in which light is restricted to specific, composed effects that play and prey on our sense of space and depth and focus. Staring at objects sculpted from light that change form and gain solidity under scrutiny encourages us to think very directly about the ways in which the world we encounter is not simply ‘out there’ but instead constructed in our perception of it.

Talk of art installations that make light present might call to mind the emperor’s new cloths. It is easy, when standing in line before being instructed to replace your shoes with disposable gauze slippers and then step into a light filled chamber full of LA hipsters, to be wary of being taken in. It is much harder to give yourself over to the possibility of a subtle but powerfully transformative perceptual experience. Turrell’s work and his intense, softly spoken, white-bearded explanations of it cut against a contemporary culture that, at risk of sounding curmudgeonly, encourages cynicism and snap judgment.

If sincerity is one marker of Turrell’s timeliness, his insistence on time itself is another. Several of the rooms and works at LACMA have notices recommending a minimum viewing time of fifteen minutes. Can we leave the rest of the world alone for that long? Those who take that time become aware of its importance as eyes settle, adjust and attune, as the lap and lull of shifting colours or the tonal qualities of what at first felt like a single colour gradually reveal themselves.

This is being taken in in a different sense. Many of Turrell’s most famous works are site-specific adaptions to existing buildings or specially commissioned structures designed to capture natural light or to frame and defamiliarise the sky. In the gallery as in these chambers the experience can be one of immersion, of giving out and over to light encountered as if for the first time.

No account I could provide could convince you of this. Turrell resists description and reproduction. Google him and the screen will fill with squares and rectangles of bright, iridescent light with blurry figures dotted in silhouette. This, again, encourages wariness. We hate people who say, “You had to be there.” But perhaps again there is something timely about experience that cannot easily be shared, that insists upon engagement with a specific place and for a specific time. While the Guggenheim and Houston exhibitions are now closed the LACMA retrospective runs until the spring. Turrell’s work is widely accessible with installations in galleries, museums and other sites across America and beyond ‒ including “Skyspaces” in Yorkshire, Norfolk and Northumbria.

As should be apparent Turrell made me think about light, about time and about what we do in front of unique experience. When we travel ‒ perhaps to study abroad ‒ we often explain that we are going to gain experiences that depend on “being there.” But how rare are such experiences and what do they demand of us? Prayer, meditation, listening to music and reading can all, like Turrell’s art, give access to that sense of slowed, palpable time. As we approach the scholarly activities of writing and research we know the benefits of working fast, of multitasking, of technology’s capacity to put us in many different places all at once. Encouragement to still, silent concentration and reward for still, silent concentration reminds us of other modes of being.

In 1974 Turrell acquired the Roden crater, an extinct volcano in the Arizona desert. Since then he has been working gradually and on a monumental scale to transform the crater into a naked-eye observatory and to create tunnels and chambers that filter and shape natural light. It is not yet open to the public. Glimpses of the project encourage us to wait.

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