The liberation and containment of sight

Zsuzsanna Soboslay, James Turrell: a retrospective

 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

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

James Turrell is a god among light-as-art gurus, a practitioner concerned with the “secular transcendent.” His exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia is the fourth in a series originally curated for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, toured to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, thence the Guggenheim in New York and now in Canberra.

Each venue has housed projection pieces, holograms, drawings, prints and photographs, along with new site-specific, whole-room experiences utilising a variety of light sources from LED to fluorescent, tungsten, fibre-optic and natural, also requiring false walls, extensive fine plastering by experts, and limited visitor entries per hour, as well as caveats on where to walk and how to behave within the installations.

We could discuss the relationship between Turrell’s Quaker background and whether or not this work is spiritual. He himself cautions, “It’s terrible hubris to say this is a religious art. Nonetheless, it is something that does remind us of that way we are when we are thinking of things beyond us.” Key is Turrell’s indication of the way that an individual experiences each installation. Everyone I talk to has a differing opinion of what elements of the current exhibition affect them most.

The obsessive nature of Turrell’s work has seen him create long-term projects which include the purchase of an extinct volcano in the Arizona Desert to create his magnum opus, the Roden Crater, a pilgrimage place which, like the ancient ziggurats and stupa of Indian, Javanese and Mayan cultures, is where human architecture meets the cosmos via a ritual control and channelling of shape, light and time.

In the 1960s, in Santa Monica, Turrell took over the disused Mendota Hotel for 10 years to observe, document, imitate and finally manipulate an unending play of shafts of light across otherwise blacked-out rooms. The hotel became a theatre of light-corridors, serving as creative fodder for a flicker-book of luminous aquatints and drawings executed long after his eviction, a document of his mind grappling with the passage of time.

On a more public scale, Turrell began to create Ganzfield Rooms, named after the Ganzfield effect. Ganzfield Installations build on the sensory deprivation experiments of the 1960s, testing the ‘snow-blind’ experience of skiers as well as the disequilibria of aeronautic pilots. They are essentially fog-filled rooms into which one ascends via stairs through a demarcated, open portal. An internal, soft-edged proscenium arch, like the edge of the sea, extends ahead into a void. Looking back, the white room from whence one came takes on the colour of the opposites of the colour-wheel playing out before our eyes. Complicit with Itten’s colour-field theory, our eyes cycle through a perpetually adjusting fog of exquisite hues.

James Turrell, Shanta II (blue) 1970, cross-corner construction: fluorescent light, built space, Dimensions variable: 106.6cm (max height of aperture), National Gallery of Australia

James Turrell, Shanta II (blue) 1970, cross-corner construction: fluorescent light, built space, Dimensions variable: 106.6cm (max height of aperture), National Gallery of Australia

Without markers for up, down, left or right, pilots and astronauts suffering a Ganzfield effect could plummet to the ground. But at the gallery’s Ganzfield, we are limited by the demarcation of time (10 minutes per session), overzealous guards directing our gaze (“now…look at the white effect on your hands”) and an orderly coming in and exiting in file, let alone the presence of others clearly embodied, grounded and vertical, beside you in the room.

That said, people have been known to plunge into the receding abyss of the edge or tripped up against the installation’s curved side walls. Still, I long for children to run and dancers to sway here. I would love both multitudes and more isolation in this room.

This central problem—of the self, in relation to others—is solved with the solo experience of the ‘Bindu Shards’ Perceptual Cell, a spheroid not unlike an MRI machine into which one is wheeled, clutching an emergency button, for 15 minutes, having signed a caveat not to sue either Turrell or the gallery in case epilepsy is triggered.

From outside the spheroid, the waiting queue watches flashing lights and changing hues, keen to get in. On the inside, there is a hum of low sounds accompanying a play of light that has one’s eyes sink into their orbs. While relaxed by the experience, it is not more than I have experienced in meditation. Per se I am fine with this, but the ‘scientific’ apparatus—lab-coats; the computerised graphs to which attendants’ eyes remain glued; the atom-splitter shape of the whole—leave me with a sense of involvement in a half-baked experiment where the results are ambiguous and one doesn’t know where the proceeds go. My attendant seemed greatly disappointed when I emerged from the ‘soft option’ experience not particularly moved. I wanted to try the ‘hard option’ but the Cell is booked out for months.

It is here where the relative freedoms of the sky spaces, such as the Roden Crater and the NGA’s own Within Without skyspace (2010) take their hold, because these spaces play not only with space and presence, but with the critical factor of time. Not ‘time’ as in ‘you are now timed out,’ but time as in the panoply of light, cosmogony and atmospheres that occur within and through that momentary frame of place.

And yet, while the video document of the extraordinary project that is Roden Crater enthralls me with Turrell’s vision, persistence and obsession, I worry that the ‘sacred’ experience is strongest because represented on film. Here, we have the building aligned to solstice, equinox and other cosmic alignments that only occur once over several months, or decades, the emotional affect of which is edited to become an experience within a short seven minutes of viewing time.

So, is this what we are? In our secular search for meaning, beings subjected to the manipulated compression of time? I do not begrudge anyone finding their enlightenment, momentary frisson or secular joy in a Ganzfield or the Perceptual Cell. What I do take delight in is discovering the sky space created for Rice University, the Twilight Epiphany (http://skyspace.rice.edu), an open-sided pavilion with a 21-metre square cantilevered roof with a four metre square central oculus or ‘sky-eye’ beneath, before and across which students, teachers and alumni of Rice Campus are allowed uninterrupted passage. It reminds me of the liberating moment in the 1980s when I first experienced three of Rothko’s Seagram Murals, hung in a Perspex, gazebo-like room, with a realisation that it is not the subject of any one, or all three, of them, but the ‘passing strange’ of visitors who make the art, that their motion and attention or dis-attention across the colour fields create the work’s meaning. This embraces those who ignore, reject, or simply can’t handle the paintings’ colour fields, so elegantly hung within the gazebo frame. It is this liberation that I crave; and especially as I find the Ganzfield does not have me giddy in space and crash landing.

Aeronautical experiments since the 1960s after all have been entangled with ideas of conquering space to human ends. Driven by an urge to transcend the human realm, these researches also fuelled paranoia about aliens, that ‘we’re not alone’, a Cold War cock-fight and paved the way to ignore the dirt in our own backyards, for why tidy our own planet when we could potentially emigrate elsewhere in the universe? I am not quite sure Turrell’s work is aloof from such considerations.

That said, perhaps the most pure and grounded experience of the James Turrell exhibition is of Shanta II (blue) 1970, a cross-corner construction of artificial wall and fluorescent light creating a blue box that is both out and in, both penetration and void, ethereal and melancholy, an illusion of a solid filling the corner of the room. I lean into the blue (risking the censure of a guard), dipping my hand in what seems to be both threshold and sea, and find nothing but powdery space. Bliss. So, here we are, one at a time, quiet, standing, viewing, questioning and questing, in the corner. As indeed we all are, grasping for the truth, and the beyond, in each of our small, single lives.

James Turrell: a retrospective, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, opened Dec 12, 2014. Check website for closing date:
www.nga.gov.au/jamesturrell

RealTime issue #125 Feb-March 2015 pg. 44

© Zsuzsanna Soboslay; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

23 February 2015
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