Exploring perception with James Turrell: Into the Light

A portrait of artist James Turrell. Image source.

Since the early 2000’s, I’ve been fascinated with artist James Turrell. You might even call me a fangirl. While some look at art like his–art that makes use of so much empty space–and see the Emperor’s new clothes and a whole lot of nothing, I get ecstatically stoked about it. I was pretty damn ecstatic recently when I learned that my visit to Boston last month would allow me time to visit “Into The Light” – the current Turrell exhibition at the Mass MoCA.

Since the 1960’s, Turrell has been exploring the realms of the untouchable: light. Enlisting architecture and LEDs, enclosed and open spaces, negative space and the sky itself, Turrell has sought to take intangible natural forces and make them physical. His works vary in medium, size and shape, yet the impact of a Turrell is an identifiable phenomenon that becomes familiar once you’ve been in their presence. That impact is all-consuming, enveloping and awe-inspiring.

Of his light art, Turrell has described his central project as the exploration of human perception. He said in Interview in 2011, “For me, it’s [about] using light as a material to influence or affect the medium of perception. […] I want to use light as this wonderful and magic elixir that we drink as Vitamin D through the skin—and I mean, we are literally light-eaters—to then affect the way that we see. We live within this reality we create, and we’re quite unaware of how we create the reality.”

Into The Light is stunning.

“Into The Light” as Mass MoCA offers a stunning experience: Nine Turrell installations all in one spacious building, with galleries specially designed and constructed to show each work at its best. Each artwork on view at the MoCA uses light and space to engage with a common subject: How does perception work? How do our minds interpret the world?

Turrell draws attention to questions like these with strategies that differ depending on the artwork. In Afrum, created in 1967 and at MoCA on a loan from the Guggenheim Museum, he conjures a white cube in the center of a plain cube-shaped room. The cube appears to be a brightly glowing object suspended in space. It is an illusion, created by projecting panels of white light into a corner.

Above: Afrum (White). Projected light, dimensions variable. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Panza Collection, Gift 92.4175. © James Turrell. Photo David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York. Image source.

In Raethro II (Magenta), a similar visual effect is created in a different way: cutouts in the wall filled with diffuse colored light provides the illusion of a three-dimensional floating object. Turrell refers to these types of pieces that use cut-out spaces to create such an illusion as Corner Shallow Space works.

Above: An example of a Turrell Corner Shallow Space artwork, via MIT Technology Review. Image source.

It could be said that all visual art works by creating illusions. Paintings, drawings, and photographs attempt to present a facsimile of visually verifiable reality, relying on light to perceive that reality. Creating illusions is not the goal of Turrell’s work, however, though it is one way to accomplish it. His subject is light and perception itself. This becomes clearer when we consider some of the more subtle works that require patience to see.

One such work at MoCA is Pink Mist. To view it, you must extend your trust to the artist and step into a short but winding and claustrophobic pitch-black hallway, then wait, blind and vulnerable, for your eyes to adjust. As the seconds pass and your pupils open, you begin to experience a floating sensation. When your eyes have adjusted at last to the darkness, a fuzzy rectangle of pale pink appears in front of you. Look longer still and it will seem quite visible, your perceptions having sharpened in the dim light.

Pink Mist is memorable as a quiet yet astonishing mind trick. I found myself undeniably happy and uplifted as I spent more time with it, considering questions like, Is the dim pink rectangle really there? Is it a cut in the wall with lights inside it? A projection? A screen? A cutout lit only by our perception of the lights elsewhere in the room? What color is the room? Size, color, light characteristics and attendant “facts” of where you are in space all become uncertain. More options seem possible the longer you stare.

Another piece that requires time to visually emerge is Hind Sight (1984), which requires 10 to 15 minutes to perceive. Turrell calls installations like this “Dark Spaces” and defines them as “enclosed room[s] with no seemingly perceivable light.”

Ganzfeld spaces and visual gymnastics

Turrell studied mathematics and psychology as well as art, and holds a degree in perceptual psychology. All of his intellectual inquiries seem to come together in his Ganzfeld work, represented at MoCA by the star of the show, Perfectly Clear (1991).

In the 1960s, the artist was aligned with other so-called Light and Space artists in Los Angeles, and participated in a Los Angeles County Museum of Art program for Art and Technology where he worked with others on the concept of the ganzfeld chamber. “Ganzfeld” comes from the German word meaning “complete field” and refers to a space where a lack of stimulation leads to blindness or loss of perception. Turrell has explored this visual phenomena throughout his career. In Turrell’s hands, creating a Ganzfeld means creating a space where the viewer’s entire field of vision is filled with light and color.

Above: Installation view of Breathing Light (2013), from Los Angeles County Museum of Art. © James Turrell, photo by Florian Holzherr. Image via Mass MoCA, source.

In Perfectly Clear, visitors enter a featureless room two stories tall through a rectangular opening. Time slots for the experience, for which museum goers must register in advance, are 9 minutes long. (I did it twice.) The floor slants gently downward and the walls are rounded, removing typical spatial markers and creating extreme disorientation. Evenly diffused light saturates the room, gradually shifting through a rainbow of colors for several minutes, followed by an energetic strobing of lights for several minutes, then back to the gradual shifting, over and over. At times, the walls seemed to vanish, the light thick as though filled with fog. At other times, the back wall was fully discernible and the air seemed clear. Sensations of dizziness, floating, and movement are all present at different moments.

The rectangular opening into the rest of the gallery room is a vital part of the artwork in itself. The light outside of Perfectly Clear does not change, but its appearance changes drastically to the eyes of one inside the installation. This is a product of the afterimage effect, a physiological phenomenon caused by retinal fatigue where intense exposure to one color will produce the illusion of its complement. Depending on the color of the surrounding light, the opening that was white upon entering becomes vibrant red, blue, green, yellow. People outside the installation seem to change color or appear incomprehensibly dark, and the world seems cartoonish and unreal.

Perfectly Clear is Turrell at his finest, emphatically shaking our confidence in our ability to perceive reality, while delighting us with a sublimely beautiful light show. A rare combination of artist and scientist, he successfully marries Romantic and modern minimal aesthetics.

Turrell’s Sublime and the spiritual

Comparisons to the Romantic Sublime are difficult to avoid when considering Turrell’s awe-inspiring fields of color and retinal gymnastics. The artist’s affinity for painters of light and space in pursuit of the wordless Sublime is documented: Martin Gayford, writing in the MIT Technology Review, notes, “In 2001, when I asked Turrell to choose a work of art from the past to talk about, he selected Joseph Mallord William Turner’s Sunrise, with a Boat between Headlands (1835–40); his inspirations as a young man included the abstract painters Rothko, Barnett Newman, and Ad Reinhardt.”

Above: Installation view of Dissolve, from James Turrell: Into the Light in Building 6 at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art © James Turrell, photo by Florian Holzherr. Image source.

Rothko famously declared that he’d like viewers to look at his paintings from a distance of 18 inches so that the works would fill the field of vision and inspire transcendence. He in particular seems a direct inspiration for Turrell. In Dissolve, the visitor sits in the center of a rounded room before a glowing rectangle of colored light. A frosted glass panel diffuses the light, which changes color gradually, delicately as a sunrise. The delicate bands of gradient color recall Abstract Expressionist paintings just as they recall luminous landscapes and skyscapes.

Even if we did not know this about the artist’s attraction to Rothko, Turner, and other painters of mysterious and unknowable space, there is something undeniably Sublime, even moving, about Turrell’s environments. However emotionally affecting or overwhelming they may feel to the visitor, the artist does not consider them religious or “spiritual” in the typical sense.

In a 2013 interview with Art News, the artist said, “I am interested in the dynamics of inner vision and religious traditions dealing with light, including the Quaker faith I grew up with. But I’m mostly interested in what I know. It’s not that I keep a lid on what I believe, but I want to have my believing kept very close to the knowing. I think most of us recognize that light filling a void can be a very powerful experience—a reminder that segregating the literal and what we call the ‘spiritual’ can sometimes be a meaningless distinction.”

This comment could be taken a couple of ways, but I see it as an uplifting one. Turrell’s artwork manages to be both populist and profound in its immediacy, accessibility and wordless, universal impact. Human beings with the power of sight experience a particular set of visual reactions in the presence of a Turrell installation. These reactions can be calculated, calibrated, minutely explored. These experiences are personal and also universal. They are private and simultaneously shared.

The intimacy of this fact opens the visitor to a profound sense of connection and delight which rises above the fear of sensory overload. In contentious times, where so many feel disconnected from each other, artwork like this feels not only important, but necessary for healing and survival.

James Turrell: Into the Light, Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art
On view at least through 2018.

Further reading:

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