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Light Happens: Based upon a distant memory and a recent viewing of "James Turrell: A Retrospective" at LACMA

By John David O'BrienJanuary 25, 2014

Light Happens: Based upon a distant memory and a recent viewing of "James Turrell: A Retrospective" at LACMA

ON MY WAY down to the Security Pacific Gallery, in Costa Mesa, California, to see the James Turrell installation of Night Light, I was thinking about anything but art. It was close to the end of 1989, and I had just finished my MFA at USC earlier that year to complement the one I already had from the Accademia di Belle Arti in Rome. I figured that  it would give me a chance to enter into the LA workforce, now that I had decided not to move to New York. I further figured that writing about art would give me a good ulterior motive to get out and see the stuff of my newly adopted city and not just as another anonymous viewer. That morning I was ruminating about the huge spaces separating the various parts of Los Angeles and comparing them to the now incredibly small sectors or quartieri that I had been used to in Rome. The long flat strips of the 405 seemed particularly uninhabited that day; I had asked to visit the gallery on an off day to avoid running into other visitors, and in the middle of the day to avoid rush hour.

The gallery was empty, and one of the curators, Mark Johnstone, told me that the space was all mine, that an assistant would let me in and then fetch me after 15-20 minutes. He told me that he’d prefer to let me experience the work first and that we could talk about it after. That seemed fine to me since I generally prefer to see art before reading the didactic, promotional, or historical materials anyway. The attendant, a lovely young woman who normally abides by the gallery entrance, led me to a door that opened onto a darkened hallway. She explained that there were several baffles between there and the inner chamber to ensure that no light at all would get in, and she would use a flashlight to usher me in and accompany me out. Fine, I thought. The hall was pitch black, the floors and ceilings and walls all black, and the soft carpet underfoot seemed to reiterate the absolute lack of points of reference for a visitor to hang on to. As she turned the corner on her way out, I was plunged into deep silence and complete darkness.

At first, the quiet and the notable lack of anything to look at were somewhat soothing. I thought I could hear the very slight hum of the big surrounding building as it cooled or heated itself, but I literally couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. I tried squinting, waving my fingers, and eventually I touched my nose, but I couldn’t see any trace of my digits. I had been escorted into the middle of the room, but I wasn’t sure where I should be orienting my gaze or what, if anything, I should be doing while the experience was occurring, so I sat down on the floor right where I was. A few minutes went by and nothing happened. Some more time passed and I thought that I was starting to see some distant lights flickering to the left and right out of the corners of my eyes. I turned my head toward them. The lights seemed to trace very quick arcs down along the lower edges of my eye sockets. Swiveling my head slowly, the faint lights followed my movements. In fact, they stayed in the same position wherever I turned, frustrating my attempts to localize their source. This activity went on for a while and then, at one point, larger blobs of color began to move in and around my field of vision. Large spots of red floated along, elongated globules of blue and orange and yellow went by or popped up for a moment, then disappeared. It was strange to try and follow the appearances especially since I was fully aware that there was no light coming in. How were they moving around, I wondered. Still I kept trying to track the traces. By and large it was hard to not imagine the light as being on a wall or a ceiling somewhere, but it became clear that the light was coming from inside my head and had no external source at all. Still more time went by and the interior spectacle went on, cycling through a number of rather beautiful variations. It seemed like a smoothed-out, mellow psychedelic experience. There was an ebb and flow of different colors and shifts in tone and hue, forms in different combinations grew along mostly linear patterns, drawn out and truncated forms came and went at various intervals. It wasn’t the least bit unpleasant to give myself over to the display even if I couldn’t find a recognizable overall pattern in the occurrences. I began to think that this was the point of the installation: to isolate a viewer from the standard flow of light and time and let them watch what the mind-body does in this state of sensory deprivation. More time passed and I relaxed, got up from the floor, and moved a few inches around in a tight circle. I wondered how much time was generally allotted for a visitor to experience this particular James Turrell.

More time passed and I had the feeling that nothing astounding or spectacular was still in the making. It was getting a little boring to still be there. I squinted into the darkness and wondered if I could find my way out. Putting my hands out, I moved a little this way and then that, but it was utterly disorienting and I quickly gave up. I thought it over and decided that really enough time had passed, and that it would be pretty reasonable to be taken back into the light. Calling for assistance, I got no response. The floor didn’t really carry sound so I dismissed the idea of banging on it. Then I tried to gauge how long I had been there. It sure seemed like a lot longer than 20 minutes.

Over in one direction, I thought for sure that I saw what might have been light under a door or wall crack. I walked toward it but only managed to bump my head against a wall. I was getting a little upset, unable to contact anyone and unable to orient myself. I tried slowing everything down, meditating and breathing. Thankfully there was no panic rising in me so I guessed I would trust them and just wait. Then when more than enough time had elapsed, I knew my stay in Night Light had gone beyond the standard visit. Unclear whether something had gone awry or it was a weird joke, I determined to get out. I got down on my hands and knees and began feeling my way to whatever edges might be out there. I came across numerous imperfections in the rug that were marvelously magnified under my now-enhanced touch. The light show continued in my head and even provided me with some comic relief as I inched slowly across the gallery floor. Eventually, I made my way to a joining of the floor to a perpendicular surface, which I assumed was a wall. As often happens in normal life, I hadn’t really paid much real attention to the specifics of how I had gotten in. So the question was: were there two baffles between me and the exit or were there three? I edged forward and then crawled some more. I perfected a method of deducing which dead ends went nowhere and which went somewhere else. Finally, I managed to get the corners all turned in the right direction and I saw the outline of an entrance door. Hallelujah! I had not realized how dilated my pupils would be, so when I stepped out of the installation into the atrium, I nearly fell over from my already stooped position. A new young woman attendant was now presiding over the entrance to the gallery, and she appeared startled by my sudden appearance. She gasped out, “What are you doing in there?” Somehow I managed to reply, “Reviewing the art installation.” It turned out that the two attendants had changed guard right after I had gone in, and the original guard had neglected to mention that someone, me, was in Night Light and would need, at some point, to be retrieved. I may be the first person to have had to break out of a James Turrell.

Turrell has often stated that he wants a viewer to become more aware of how things are seen, not of the things being viewed themselves. That was certainly the case for me. The specific chemistry, the interplay of photosensitive cells in the retina — the rods for dark/light adaptation and the cones for color differentiation — are less important to Turrell than the viewer’s experience, the experience a viewer has while experiencing a work of his. The dawning of the light pattern or the transformation from one color to another or the way the body-mind reacts to drastic changes in lighting: these are at the core of his poetics. I have since read that one of Turrell’s sources for Night Light was the experience pilots have flying very late at night in the absence of light. How that situation often leads pilots to see things and even to hallucinate. My own experience had come very close to that.


James Turrell: A Retrospective at LACMA covers about 50 years of his art-making. It includes his early geometric light projections, the prints he later made about those projections, preparatory drawings and drawings made after the fact, numerous installations and light chambers, as well as his recent work with holograms. A significant part of the exhibition is devoted to a detailed model and photos of Roden Crater, an immense site-specific project being carved out of the land, near Flagstaff, Arizona. The scale model, with strategic cutaways to reveal the tunnels and passageways, along with photographs and maps, conveys the scope of a project where the ambition is hard to even imagine.

Turrell’s ongoing exploration of light as art is fundamentally rooted in the phenomenological but it touches upon the philosophical. Immanence or immanency comes quickly to mind. The essential quality of the situations that he has orchestrated over the years, keyed to the viewer’s act of perceiving it, because they are about light, which always alludes to something beyond itself, leads inevitably to a longer conversation about the metaphysical.

The immersion in baths of light, walking through beams and chambers of variable or fixed lighting, the lapse of time that is required to physically absorb these changes in the light and of our shifting perception of it, and the long walks to cover the square footage of the exhibition — it all adds up to an entirely different experience than a usual museum tour. You cannot just take a quick look at a James Turrell installation; you have to commit to encountering it. It is particularly fitting that this retrospective is being launched by LACMA in Los Angeles, where the Light and Space movement has its origins.

It is hard to imagine the time in 1969 when Turrell created the Mendota Stoppages. To do so, he simply leased a closed hotel in the Ocean Park area in Santa Monica and then sealed off the spaces inside, painted out the windows and blocked off the external light, making art for several years by projecting light, or allowing light from natural and artificial sources to enter the darkened spaces. Direct, involving the entire environment, and ephemeral, these spaces carved into by light presented me with a number of issues that I’m still exploring. How does perception grapple with light? And how are words so quickly exhausted by the fullness of it? The beauty of the Mendota Stoppages, which the artist says was his first protracted series of projection works, is that it took advantage of everything. Light came into the stripped-down rooms in strong, static, and moving beams. Moonlight, headlights from cars, the streetlights, and other surrounding lights could enter and change the space based on how the light was directed, the physical space of the unused hotel perceptually altered by the succession of light stoppages.

The art world requires that objects or installations can travel and be seen in more than a single place, so Turrell naturally continued to experiment with setting up projections of light from man-made sources. Characteristic of those works, Afrum (White), a 1966 projected light corner, introduces us to another recurring parameter of Turrell’s work: the ambiguity of a spatial shape that is made by light. Since its form is subject to our own ability to grasp its physical appearance, these luminous forms are hard to define. In a darkened room, the single white cube seems to be floating in the far corner, but is it cut into the wall or is it protruding out from it Sitting at about chest height, the form wavers internally but is crisply outlined by the darkness, and we are unable to tell. Only after we have walked up to it (if allowed by the cautious museum guards) do we ascertain that it has no shape at all. It is just light on two perpendicular walls.


In his departure from the use of natural light and in his forays into the use of other light sources, including designing new light fixtures and working with technicians to create new light sources, Turrell has diverged from some of his artist peers. It will be interesting to see how this divergence from the ”purity” of an art standard will be viewed. Will he been seen as having been a precursor, guiding artists out of an art history bottleneck of self-reference, or will he be seen as abandoning the field of art for some wonderful but non-art hybrid practice? If we could be around in 50 years, it’d be interesting to see how the scales tipped.

The wall in front of me is coved, which means that its outside corners have been softened with curving edges so that I cannot perceive the two planes meeting each other in a sharp corner. It seems to hover in place, and is used by photographers to shoot images of things that don’t want to be defined by a horizon line. Turrell’s wall (an art work) seems to contain, or be housing or holding, a sharply delineated rectangular panel. The panel alternately seems to stand out from the wall, or be cut into the wall, or float in front of the wall. From behind this darkened panel, a warm pink light is emanating, seeping into the environment. It is hard to tell whether there is a thin cool white light in the form of a rectangle outline that is surrounded by the hot pink or if it is just a painted surface with light behind it. The pink and the white lights seem to pulse ever so slightly, and the panel to alternately darken and then lighten as my eyes refocus and readjust. The fluorescent light and shallow space of a work like Raemar Pink White (1969) conspire to make the actual physicality of the light, the panel, and the space extremely hard to stabilize. Once at an LA gallery opening I saw a woman try to lean on the illuminated wall of a Turrell room, only to find herself falling into the rectangular cut-away section in the drywall. I understood perfectly how that could have happened to her, and taking advantage of the ensuing confusion I went and pushed my hand into the empty space, certain that right up until the moment it went into the void that I was about to touch a wall. It tingled to reach through.

Ganzfeld is a German word used to describe the phenomenon of the total loss of depth perception caused by exposure to an unstructured, uniform stimulation field, like when someone goes snow blind. Turrell creates an analogous experience by structuring an environment in which the absolute control of lighting, the coving of all corners, and an inclined floor put the viewer inside a self-contained, illuminated chamber. Turrell’s different Ganzfelds take the use of lighting effects and lighting structures to elaborate ends. Occupancy is limited and you have to remove your shoes so as to not scuff the painted flooring. You step up some stairs and then down into the glowing chamber of the work, where you hang out and watch for the changes. In Breathing Light (2013) at LACMA, the environment is entirely enveloped in a soft reddish-pink glow. The color is generated by LED lights and is very intense, almost causing you to see afterimages even before you blink. At the far end of the work, down an incline, there appears to be a central lozenge shape that occupies most of the wall. You are only allowed to get so close, and it is once again impossible to ascertain whether the form is cut into the far wall or is a panel suspended in front of it — or maybe it is just a lighting effect? Looking around is oddly pleasurable and disturbing, something like a slow perceptual roller coaster. As you cross the LED-lit space, the colors begin to change, heading from the pink red violet into a deep almost cerulean blue. That is when you really begin to notice the massive aftereffects of green or orange swatches when you blink. As the brain tries to balance the effects of the massive color saturation, the optical nerves give up the ghost. Turning around you can see the embedded banks of lights in the back wall. Meanwhile the wall behind the entry looks like it is behaving very strangely, changing into various other colors and hues. The immersion qualities of the Ganzfeld are totally engrossing and the effects are stunning. At a certain point, you feel like you have been through the light cycle once or twice, and by then you feel like getting out. I asked one of the museum attendants standing in Breathing Light what kind of effects being in that work for hours had on her. She said that the rotation cycle was pretty frequent and that she hadn’t really felt any lasting effects, but she did say that she was happy to be taking a bus home, instead of dealing with a nighttime freeway drive, after a shift in the Turrell installation.

To my mind, the most compelling works of Turrell’s prodigious output are the hardest to experience. They are the skyspaces, owned by individual collectors and disseminated throughout the world. They are also the direct descendants of the performance of lights that happened in the Mendota Hotel rooms. Each skyspace is unique — a specifically proportioned space with an opening in the ceiling up to the sky. Skyspaces can be freestanding autonomous structures in an owner’s yard or garden, or they can be integrated into existing buildings. They have little in common save that they capture light from the sky above. Each constructed structure is quite different; each aperture is a different shape. What they share conceptually is deceptively simple. In reality, the edges of the sky-viewing portal are extremely difficult to make in such a way that the sky appears to float by like some image on a screen or projection, and the difference between the outside of the skyspace and its interior viewing area is always calibrated in order to make the experience of looking up at the sky an acutely unusual moment, instigating a conversation about a real physical phenomena that invariably ends up in the metaphysical — for how does that still image of framed sky place us in the flow of time?

James Turrell has been bringing that question to the fore through his work since the light of a slide projector in a Pomona classroom first mesmerized him. The question doesn’t get any less compelling. Actually as time goes on, especially when he pares the delivery down, it becomes ever more enthralling. To have a reason to just sit quietly, looking up at the blue of the sky takes me back places that many art forms don’t. Imagination is at play and perception is activated, but even more so memories are stirred. The transparent memories of pasts contained in the air and shrouded by the present make their way silently forward in consciousness. Somehow with these beams of light they are restored to us in awe-inspiring simplicity and depth.


John David O’Brien writes about art and other subjects in both English and Italian.

LARB Contributor

Photo by Todd Gray

Born in Sagamihara, Japan into a military family, John David O'Brien works as an artist, writer and curator. He has an MFA from USC, an AA.BB. from the Accademia di Belle Arti di Roma, and a Magistero from the Istituto D'Arte di Urbino. He was awarded a California Community Foundation Artist Fellowship, a City of LA Artist Grant and a Fulbright. He has written short descriptive reviews and research essays. His writing has appeared in the periodicals Artillery, Sculpture, Tema Celeste, Art in America, World Art, Visions, International Herald Tribune, and La Repubblica. His essays have been published in Landscapes for Art (isc Press) and Testi Tessili (F.lli Palombi, Ed.), among others.


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