Paintings Made of Light…

One more story from Canberra…

We visited a monumental new art installation celebrating light and nature at the National Gallery of Australia (NGA). James Turrell: A Retrospective is at the NGA until June. From his early Projection Pieces (simple light projections that give the illusion of three-dimensional form) to his more recent, state-of-the-art Ganzfelds (specially designed rooms flooded with colour-infused light, which can induce a loss of depth perception), the 35-work exhibition explores the full gamut of Turrell’s preoccupations.

James Turrell 'Raemar pink white' 1969 Shallow space construction: fluorescent light Kayne Griffin
James Turrell ‘Raemar pink white’ 1969 Shallow space construction: fluorescent light Kayne Griffin
James Turrell “Aten Reign” 2013, installation view
James Turrell “Aten Reign” 2013, installation view

Visitors to the National Gallery will be familiar with one of his site-specific Skyspaces, Within Without, built adjacent to the gallery in 2010. Taking the form of a grass-covered pyramid surrounded by water and accessed through a sunken walkway, the work is further revealed inside the open-topped structure as a stupa of basalt, itself surrounded by water that seems to glow with an aquamarine intensity. Inside the stupa is a viewing chamber with a knife-edged oculus in the domed ceiling. Here, at dawn and dusk, a subtle LED light cycle is played out, mixing with the protean light of the sky to produce a range of hues, from peachy pink to duck-egg blue. Turrell’s knowledge of optics and perception is so sophisticated, it’s common for viewers to assume the oculus isn’t an opening so much as a screen.

Within without 2010. Skyspace: lighting installation, concrete and basalt stupa, water, earth, landscaping
Within without 2010. Skyspace: lighting installation, concrete and basalt stupa, water, earth, landscaping
Within without 2010. Skyspace: lighting installation, concrete and basalt stupa, water, earth, landscaping
Within without 2010. Skyspace: lighting installation, concrete and basalt stupa, water, earth, landscaping

The skyspace is the biggest artwork in the National Gallery’s collection. Turrell has built more than 20 of his signature skyspace structures around the world, but this one is the largest work he’s constructed so far and its the only one in the southern hemisphere.

Born in LA in 1943 to an aeronautical engineer (father) and a doctor (mother), Turrell acquired his pilot’s licence at 16 and studied perceptual psychology, art, maths and astronomy at university. He began working out of a former hotel in Santa Monica, experimenting with light from a slide projector and different light-bulb types to create coloured shapes that appeared to hover in space. From there, he turned to manipulating external light sources, cutting holes in the studio’s walls and ceiling, and etching lines in the paint he’d used to black out the windows. “I began to open things and let light in, and then began to make a piece out of the whole space.”

After Turrell’s building modifications got him evicted in 1974, he took to the skies in his aeroplane to search for a site he could turn into one giant art work. He wanted it to have a certain elevation so that it would be possible to experience ‘celestial vaulting’, or the perception – common among pilots when flying – that the horizon is concave and the sky is forming a globe. After seven months, he found what he was looking for in Arizona: Roden Crater, an extinct volcano in the Painted Desert. In order to take ownership of the crater, with the help of an art foundation, Turrell had to purchase the ranches around it.

James Turrell at Roden Crater
James Turrell at Roden Crater

He has spent the past 35 years transforming the crater’s interior into the apotheosis of his art, and the exhibition at the National Gallery includes photographs and scale models of the project. Although only about 30 per cent completed, according to his master plan, the precisely excavated tunnels and viewing chambers within have bewitched those lucky enough to have had a guided tour.

The New York Times described them as being “as perfectly finished as the most elegant Midtown hotel” and noted that they are orientated towards the direction of the rising sun at summer solstice and the moonset “at its southernmost point in the lunar cycle”. Clearly, Turrell knows his way around a sextant. But the artist hasn’t focused exclusively on celestial matters. He now owns about 58ha and 2500 cattle. The project was funded by his skills as a pilot and aircraft restorer, now ranching helps to sustain it.

Roden Crater currently contains two Skyspaces. When it’s finished, the work will have the full range of Turrell’s oeuvre included in the space, from Projection Pieces to Wedgeworks. Wedgeworks are Turrell’s most complex installations, using fibre optic, LED and neon light to create what looks like a wall or barrier made of light.

Apparently the light conditions in Canberra are similar to those at Roden Crater, so Turrell was very excited to do the exhibition in Canberra.

Making something out of nothing can have its disadvantages. In 1980, several visitors to a Turrell exhibition at the Whitney Museum in New York mistook one of Turrell’s “walls” for the real thing, injured themselves by trying to lean on it, and subsequently sued. In Vienna, another visitor ran into a Ganzfeld room and collided with a wall. At the National Gallery you enter the Ganzfeld room slowly, with a security guard who then ensures you don’t get close to any wall, real or imaginary.

“Ganzfeld” is German for “entire [visual] field”, and it’s a concept central to the art of James Turrell. “Ganzfeld” describes the experience of snowblind arctic explorers or pilots navigating dense fog. When everything in the visual field is the same color and brightness, the visual system shuts down. White is black is nothing is everything. When this occurs for an extended period, the person is subject to phantasmagoric hallucinations: the “prisoner’s cinema” experienced in isolation cells or collapsed mines.

Turrell has lately adopted the word “ganzfeld” for a series of light installations. They are spacious rooms, suited to several visitors at once, specially designed to be flooded with colour-infused light, which can induce a loss of depth perception. Hence the need for a security guard to keep an eye on people as they move around. The light, modulated by digital and LED technology, cycles seamlessly. This is experiential art and while still an assault on your photoreceptors, you don’t have to sign a disclaimer to enter a ganzfeld room.

James Turrell 'Sight unseen' 2013 Ganzfeld: LED light Villa e Collezione Panza, Varese (Italy)
James Turrell ‘Sight unseen’ 2013 Ganzfeld: LED light Villa e Collezione Panza, Varese (Italy)
James Turrell 'Sight unseen' 2013 Ganzfeld: LED light Villa e Collezione Panza, Varese (Italy)
James Turrell ‘Sight unseen’ 2013 Ganzfeld: LED light Villa e Collezione Panza, Varese (Italy)
James Turrell 'Sight unseen' 2013 Ganzfeld: LED light Villa e Collezione Panza, Varese (Italy)
James Turrell ‘Sight unseen’ 2013 Ganzfeld: LED light Villa e Collezione Panza, Varese (Italy)

The centrepiece of the exhibition is Bindu shards, which viewers with a premium ticket can experience from the inside of the artwork – if they sign a waiver.

Bindu shards 2010. Perceptual cell: fiberglass and metal. Light program 420.8 x 653.1 x 607.1 cm (sphere). National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, purchased 2014. By James Turrell.
Bindu shards 2010. Perceptual cell: fiberglass and metal. Light program 420.8 x 653.1 x 607.1 cm (sphere). National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, purchased 2014. By James Turrell.

In experiencing the work, the viewer is entirely enclosed inside a white dome filled with what the artist describes as “behind the eyes light”. Due to the nature of the artwork, which utilises flashing lights, those who enter the viewing chamber must fill out a form indicating whether they suffer from epilepsy, have a pacemaker or suffer from a fear of confined spaces.

Gallery-goers have been keen to secure a spot, and tickets to the experience have sold out until January next year! So we couldn’t get a ticket.

Turrell hopes viewers are able to experience the sensations and emotions that flowed from his art, without being distracted by the technical nature of the medium. Some viewers reported feeling disoriented and confused, while others found the experience quite spiritual.

Here is UK Guardian’s Jonathan Jones on Bindu Shards (experienced at the London Gagosian Gallery in 2010):

I am placed on a sliding medical bed, counselled some more and locked in the sphere. And it begins. A relaxed ambient expanse of blue is shattered by high-speed flashing that rapidly becomes an ever-changing pattern of flowers, crystals, galaxies, quasars and nebulae.

Then I see a cityscape of vertiginous skyscrapers, with no earth below. All these forms and volumes that pulse and metamorphose are defined by colours that change convulsively – the most intensely saturated greens and reds you can imagine, colours that seem solid, then burst into microscopic patterns of oranges, blacks, gold and misty white; all these colours bubble and whir at breakneck speed, as if you were in a particle accelerator.

But the most important part of the experience is that you do not know what is inside and outside your head. I saw a space, or rather an ever-changing succession of spaces, but these were independent of any actual material reality – they existed only in my head.

One critic has already claimed he had a mental orgasm in the chamber. It would be nice to scoff but I feel that downplays the power of this mind-expanding work of art. Sessions are fully booked, which means we critics are just fuelling the already large numbers of disappointed visitors. The other works in the exhibition, free for all, are almost equally revelatory. Turrell is the mad scientist of postminimalism, and he’s on a roll.

Manipulating light – and the viewer’s perception – with a blend of creativity and science, James Turrell creates art on a large scale and uses elemental materials to experiential ends. He is not using light to illuminate other things, he wants light itself to be the revelation. It is contemporary art like you’ve never seen before. His sensory environments, projections and constructions exist in a wide range of forms and locations, but their objective is the same: to embody light in order to enhance viewers’ awareness of their own perceptual faculties. His installations, pulsating with fields of colour so intense they all but penetrate the skin, are a definite assault on your photoreceptors, perceptions and interpretation of them.

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