February 2015

Arts & Letters

A light touch

By Benjamin Law
‘James Turrell: A Retrospective’ at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Deep in the Arizona desert lives a man who has spent half his life creating an observatory at the dead heart of a 389,000-year-old volcano. His motivation isn’t religion or science, but art. After spotting Roden Crater from a plane in 1974, the American artist James Turrell knew he had to somehow acquire this 180-metre-tall cone of cinder and create his magnum opus – inside the thing. In the following decades, the Roden Crater project would cost Turrell 25 years of repayments on a $1.7 million mortgage and two marriages. But considering the celestial scale of his work, perhaps money and romance were inevitable sacrifices. After all, we’re talking about an artist who counts Angkor Wat in Cambodia, the pyramids in Egypt and Machu Picchu in Peru as some of his artistic inspirations.

When I meet Turrell in December at Canberra’s National Gallery of Australia – which has just opened a retrospective of his career that will run until 8 June – he’s dressed entirely in black and sports a white tumbleweed of a beard and a waxed moustache. He’s Santa Claus designed by Tim Burton. At nearly 72, Turrell is far from intimidating or strange, though. For all the sweeping grandeur of his work, he speaks with the warm tones of a local preacher and has an unexpected penchant for terrible dad jokes.

“All this work was made by a saint,” he says sombrely. For a moment, I’m confused. Does Turrell consider himself a saint? He grins and delivers the punchline. “Darryl Cowie [an Australian designer Turrell employed to build his work at the NGA] once played professional football … for Saint Kilda!”

Turrell was raised in Pasadena, California. His Quaker family were so devout that they refused to use cars or electricity, and they worshipped God in the way all Quakers do: in silent group meditation.

“A silent meeting could go for two and a half hours,” he says. “Now, if you’re a child, that’s sometimes a little difficult.”

As a kid in those meetings, all Turrell wanted was for the roof to open up so he could stare at the sky, which he could do happily for hours. “I would sit there at the meeting house and think, Wouldn’t it be terrific if this place was a convertible?

After he finished school, Turrell studied maths and perceptual psychology at university. His graduate studies in art history and practice were interrupted in 1966, when he was jailed for coaching young men on how to avoid the Vietnam draft. (Quakers don’t believe in war.) After roughly a year, Turrell was released from jail and immediately started working on art inspired by his obsession with light.

While other artists use paint, metal or clay, Turrell’s chosen medium doesn’t bend to anyone’s will so easily. All of Turrell’s artworks showcase light – not what it can illuminate, but the sheer magnificence of light itself: the light of the sky, the light you see behind your eyelids, the light you don’t even know is there until your pupils have sufficiently dilated.

“Rather than light being a thing that reveals something,” he says, “the light itself becomes the revelation.”

Now, half a century after Turrell started, the New Yorker refers to him as “the veteran wizard of installations that involve illusory effects of light”. In 2013 alone, three major art museums – the Guggenheim in New York, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston – each held James Turrell retrospectives. Outside LACMA, scalpers hawked tickets to the sold-out exhibition. Like Marina Abramović or Matthew Barney, James Turrell is the art world’s equivalent of a rock star.

Not everyone is a fan, though. In the New Republic, the art critic Jed Perl savaged both Turrell and the institutions who exhibited him. “Turrell is a minor poet with the ambitions of a megalomaniac,” he wrote. “And the art world is his enabler.” (Of Aten Reign, one of Turrell’s installations designed for the Guggenheim, Perl said it “would look perfectly at home as the setting for a Cirque du Soleil show”.)

It’s a staggeringly unkind take, since Turrell’s work relies on a complete absence of cynicism and wholesale embrace of wonder. When I first encountered Turrell’s art on the Japanese island of Naoshima, I marvelled at how he had made solid cubes of light seemingly grow out a room’s corner, only to discover that the cubes were actually optical illusions created by absences carved into the wall. What kind of magician of lux and lumen makes voids appear to have gravity and weight?

But Turrell’s most impressive works are his most immersive. In his Ganzfelds (German for “complete fields”), visitors take off their shoes, climb up steps and walk into a room together. The Ganzfeld occupies your entire field of vision, and it’s difficult initially to gauge the depth of the room. Most people approach slowly. Imperceptibly at first, the space changes colour, as if you’ve found yourself in the lungs of a giant organism. But what’s so affecting about Naoshima’s Ganzfeld is how its flood of narcotic colour gives the sense of staring into the afterlife. Turning back to the square from which you enter – tangible, glowing with crisp light – it feels like Turrell is forcing you to choose between the clarity of existence and the mysteries of death. People who have recently lost loved ones are often reduced to tears.

Art critics focus on Turrell’s technical prowess, but fans flock to his work because it moves them. It’s personal. Turrell says this makes sense: there is a direct relationship between light and human emotion.

“Light is part of our diet,” he says. “We drink light as Vitamin D through the skin. Without Vitamin D, we have serious problems in the serotonin balance and you get depression. Light is a food. And we all have this relationship with light that we ignore.”

A week before the retrospective opened in Canberra, I visited the NGA to observe how Turrell’s works were built. John Gilsenan, a tall, strapping Brit, is the managing director of Westgreen, the bespoke construction company Turrell employs to make his Perceptual Cell installations. Resembling something from an HG Wells novel, the NGA’s Perceptual Cell – titled Bindu Shards – is a 4.4-metre-tall white sphere made of fibreglass and metal. Well, it’s almost a sphere. One segment juts out horizontally, like a retractable bed for a CT scan. And that’s basically what it is. The sphere can only be made whole once someone volunteers to place themselves on the bed, and is pushed inside to experience an eight-minute mystery.

Gilsenan and I poked our heads up the Perceptual Cell’s rear, and he pointed out all its inner workings: the emergency hatch, the medical-looking bed, a large ring of custom-designed LEDs that sits underneath. What it’s designed to do, Gilsenan said, is to induce a primitive alpha state in people. “A legal trip, essentially.”

One week later, Bindu Shards is finished and I experience it for myself. After taking off my shoes, I sign a legal waiver. Two women in white lab coats who operate the machine ask me a series of questions. (“Do you have epilepsy?” “Do you have problems with confined spaces?”) They lay me down on the CT scan bed and place headphones on my head and a panic button into my hands, for use if I want to force the experience to stop. Supposedly only two people in the world have used their panic buttons so far. Then the women ask which “cycle” I want.

“Soft or hard?”

I choose “hard”. Most men do, apparently.

I slide into the sphere and immediately lose all perception of depth. Then my eyes are treated to an opera of light: assaulting red beams that expand, contract and pulse, before bleeding into velvet blues and blacks, before shrinking into focused pink dots. I feel like Jodie Foster in the film Contact, being hurled through time and space. Reduced to nothing but a sensory receptacle for light, I have the weirdest sensation – that I cease to exist. When I exit Bindu Shards, involuntarily weeping – partly because it’s so bright, partly because I’m overwhelmed – I spot Turrell looking at me, smiling and satisfied.

Not everyone reacts to his art how Turrell would like. Several people have injured themselves. “With my piece Orca, there was a woman … who dove into it, thinking it would be soft,” he says. (It wasn’t soft.) At a 1980 exhibition, another woman entered one of Turrell’s Wedgework installations – rooms in which Turrell installs light sources behind partition walls to create illusions of soft, transparent screens of light – and leant against what she thought was a wall, only to discover it didn’t exist.

“She fell down to the floor, and I was sued,” Turrell says, traces of anger and bafflement still in his voice. The cases were settled out of court. (At the NGA, no one will be allowed to walk through Orca and the Wedgework.)

Turrell’s most famous spaces, however, are also the safest. He calls them Skyspaces, outdoor buildings inspired by his childhood daydreams of ripping the roof off Quaker meeting halls. Every Skyspace he designs and builds is unique, but all have a single function: for people to gather in the middle and look up. As people crane their necks, they’re reduced to humbled silence as they’re treated to a vivid depiction of the Earth’s sky. Then they realise, “Oh wait. That is the sky.” Every Skyspace ceiling window is carved and angled just so, so that the sky appears to be painted on the ceiling itself.

Turrell points out that Quakers – and by extension, most of his family – don’t believe in art. Making art is perceived as a vanity. (“When I see works at auction – Damien Hirst, or many artists I actually enjoy – it is a culture of celebrity,” Turrell concedes. “It is a vanity.”) One way Turrell has reconciled his community with his work has been to design and build Skyspaces in Quaker meeting halls in Houston and Philadelphia. In that sense, Turrell is doing something very traditional, marrying art, architecture and religion, in a perfect expression of Quakerism, which requests silence and encourages its followers to “greet the light”. Now, Quaker children, in their silent meetings, can look up towards the heavens all they like.

Turrell has built more than 80 Skyspaces all over the world. Hawaii and Tasmania – at David Walsh’s Museum of Old and New Art in January – are next. Does Turrell have a favourite?

“Oh, it’s like children,” Turrell says. “You try not to have favourites.”

Still, he is exceptionally fond of the NGA’s permanent Skyspace, Within Without, which opened in 2010 and is built on the site of an old car park. Its design echoes Canberra’s native gardens, indigenous motifs and even Parliament House, with the entrance cutting through water and into a grassed hill. Inside, a giant domed stupa made of charcoal bricks sits in a square base of rusted ochre off which water endlessly runs. Enter the stupa, look up, and you see a dramatic window that changes according to Canberra’s time and seasons. This quality of light is familiar to Turrell: Canberra and his home in northern Arizona are a similar distance from the equator. Turrell is now so fond of Canberra, he likes to joke, that “I’ve probably visited Canberra more than most Australians”. By the end of this exhibition, the NGA will have permanently acquired six Turrell works – spanning the five decades of his career – as well as the Skyspace outside.

Retrospectives for living artists often imply to the public that the artist feels their body of work is complete. With Roden Crater now approaching its final phase of engineering, and due for completion in the next few years, does Turrell feel his work is over?

“Well, what’s done is done,” he says, smiling. “No, I have a full plate of ideas. Some of the ideas are from when I began, and things I’d still love to do. But the true nature of light – and how we greet it in our lives – is something I want to do more with. I’m just beginning in that regard.”

Benjamin Law

Benjamin Law is the author of The Family Law and the Quarterly Essay Moral Panic 101: Equality, Acceptance and the Safe Schools Scandal. He also co-hosts Stop Everything on ABC RN.


Virtuality Squared (2014). Ganzfeld. Collection James Turrell. Image: National Gallery of Australia
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