Visual Art

Light and space saturate the senses in James Turrell’s retrospective at the NGA. By Patrick Hartigan.

James Turrell’s vestibule of lights

James Turrell 'After green' 1993
James Turrell 'After green' 1993
Credit: © James Turrell / National Gallery of Australia, Canberra / John Gollings

Seven years ago I sat awed in James Turrell’s Open Sky (2004). A few minutes earlier I had been gazing, shoeless, upon what felt like a bed of erasers, at a breathtaking display of Monet’s late waterlily paintings. The memorable coupling of these works concerning light and space was on the Japanese island of Naoshima in the Tadao Ando-designed Chichu Museum. The level of consideration in that museum – custom-built around a collection of art – was an ideal way to experience the work of Turrell, whose sleight-of-hand light works can translate into powerful, revelatory experiences.

On the same island I sat for 20 minutes in a room, another site-specific work, gazing contentedly at pitch darkness before my eyes caught up with the quiet halo of light at the end of the room. The experience was peculiarly unassertive, bringing a meditative or emptying-out quality that one associates less with art and more with the Quaker community in which Turrell grew up.

Something shifted for me on that island and so it was with great anticipation and excitement that I visited James Turrell: A Retrospective currently showing at the National Gallery of Australia until June 8. It’s also the reason I look forward to one day visiting Roden Crater, the extinct volcano in Arizona where Turrell has been creating a naked eye observatory since the 1970s.

Since seeing this exhibition I’ve been thinking about the way anticipating any viewing experience can colour our reception of art. Was it my bloated expectation that led to something bordering on despondency?

Like a detective, I’ve been recounting the moments: rolling into town on a hot day along those wide, pedestrian-less streets; removing my sunglasses and squinting with relish in the sharpness of that light; getting lost around the circuits and institutional moorings before, upon entering the exhibition, finding assistants in lab coats escorting audience members into a white capsule, a swathe of prints – pretty and bland reproductions of previous works – and maquettes. Caught in a tangle of infrastructure, representation and reproduction, I was a long way from the island before surrendering myself to the light.

The experience of spending several hours among these rooms was satisfying yet unlike the previous experience in which I was startled into awareness – as if having walked through an invisible door, the picture plane of a painting. It took effort to refuse and block out the perception-shortening hors d’oeuvres. These were illuminating for what they told me about the oeuvre: unlike many of his peers from the ’60s and ’70s, where the detail of process enriches and finds purchase through circumspection, Turrell’s work feels compromised by detail and preamble.

It’s also impaired by Enlightenment signifiers: the Roden Crater room, with its sales-pitch-like documentary and related display of viewing instruments,  only snags us away from those perceptual immersions. As was made clear in the Chichu Museum, the impact of Turrell’s work gains force in the absence of dusty and didactic museum frameworks and reference points; the commitment to purity, to what Malevich described as “deserts of pure feeling”, begs for no compromise.

Projection piece drawings (1970-71) stands out as an interesting exception. Somehow these specimens of the hand, in which early light works were conceived with the humble aid of whiteout, give intimacy and real time formation to Turrell’s signature skill of disclosure through a game of adding and subtracting. Beyond the clutter, meanwhile, Within without (2010), a pyramidal viewing structure permanently realised by Turrell next to the gallery, allows for an experience less instructional, more along the lines of those I enjoyed in Japan.

We do, as Turrell says, “drink light”, and I found Sight unseen (2013) and After green (1993) deliciously liquid, the aftertaste of both still engaging my palate. In the latter room, once the couple enjoying a lunchbreak quarrel over what they were or were not in fact seeing had decamped, I found myself behind a curtain of light, Rothko pinks and reds, my eyes drawn towards a threshold or stage lying at gripping and uncertain proximity to my body. The experience was vaguely erotic. Sight unseen (2013), on the other hand, seduced with a light more Gatorade, the setting made stranger by the presence of a security guard.

Turrell’s work operates most powerfully through the moments in which we come to terms with vision, the moments on our way to registering and interpreting. Things are slowed down, the space between layers of colour widened; while very little might change beyond us, we are made aware of mobility within ourselves. Light isn’t so much Turrell’s medium as its support, the canvas onto which we bring the layers or media of our perception.

In this respect there is an intriguing relationship between Turrell’s work and the moving image, most immediately in the form of those flitting devices in our pockets. In Bullwinkle (2001) we sit and watch light through the small, curved square shape of an old-style television screen. Like other light works, Bullwinkle plays with our sense of negative and positive, the show of light beyond the hole providing the illusion of looking at a wall projection or flattened screen. Neither the inanimate ephemera of works about projects elsewhere nor the impressive manipulation provided by the larger rooms, Bullwinkle offers a charming and quotidian punctuation mark to the exhibition.

The somewhat Orwellian neon buzz of Turrell’s statement in the Roden Crater documentary, “I can work something around you that changes your perception”, linked eerily in my mind, as I rolled back out of town, to those marketing scents and befuddling designs employed by malls to keep us shopping. It is often pointed out that Turrell’s work, while adopting the monuments of religion and science, is free of ideology. But can these experiments in light be considered neutral when they rely on careful and studied manipulation of our senses? When realised somewhat imperviously in a museum setting like this, I’m not so sure.

The climax in this exhibition came for me in the ball that the white-cloaked lab assistants were in charge of. Bindu shards (2010), part of the ongoing Perceptual Cell series, provided the letting go I had come looking for and for 11 minutes I found pleasure in having all the markers of orientation dissolve; losing even the sense of whether my eyes were open or shut – that one given in visual art – I was as close to being back on the island of “pure feeling” as I would be that day.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 4, 2015 as "Vestibule of lights".

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Patrick Hartigan is a Sydney-based artist.

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