Monday, September 16, 2013

Light And Perception: James Turrell's Light Installations At The Guggenheim.

A rendering of James Turrell's Aten Reign installation at the Guggenheim.
For an unique experience, try to see the James Turrell exhibition at the Gugggenheim before it closes (September 25).  Usually, I'm not a big fan of light sculpture, but I was bowled over by this show.  But then, what Turrell does isn't really sculpture----at least not in the conventional sense.  Rather his installations are immersive and transformative experiences that challenge the viewers notions of perception; particularly in terms of perspective and tangibility:  In some of his installations he makes light itself appear to be a solid object by using apertures to project it in relative darkness.  Turrell has a degree in perceptual psychology and his installations seem as much sensory experiments as works of art.  They make the viewer aware that what they think they see isn't necessarily so.  His artwork calls to mind Plato's Allegory of the Cave, in which cave dwellers' perceived reality is merely shadows on a wall.  And, after having been immersed in this exhibition it's hard not to wonder about one's own grip on reality----is what one sees actual, or just shadowy illusion?

Prado, 1967.  In this installation light
is projected through an aperture onto
an otherwise unlit wall.
Turrell was in the forefront of the light and space movement that began during the sixties in California. One suspects that his interest in perceptual phenomena may have been influenced by the aesthetics of the era's psychedelic drug culture as well; even if he didn't use hallucinogenics himself----there is something decidedly trippy about his work; although, the exhibition catalog cites only his Quaker upbringing and background in perceptual psychology as determining influences:  Turrell has said that he wanted to recreate the meditative and participatory environment of Quaker prayer meetings in his installations.  I didn't find Turrell's installations to be particularly conducive to meditation, but they certainly are participatory:  They are more than just lights, they are also manufactured environments that encompass the viewer, forcing one's senses to become fully engaged.  As Turrell has said, his installations are as much about the act of perceiving as they are about what is perceived.  Particularly since what that is, isn't always so clear.

If you go to the Guggenheim, the first installation you'll come upon is Aten Reign.  The museum's rotunda has been transformed by it:  The usual open, airy architecture replaced by a series of concentric cones that both make the space smaller and saturate the viewer in an intense color that slowly moves across a full spectrum, ranging from red to blue, and back again.  The piece has been described as a skyscape.  I suppose it is, but not like any I've ever seen.  The intense color seems too alien, extraterrestrial even:  I imagine it is what the atmosphere might be like on a planet much closer to its sun, than ours is to ours.
A view of the site specific installation:
Aten Reign.

Aten Reign is also about sensory deprivation though.  While the light changes color, it is of an uniform intensity that numbs the senses, making it hard to fully understand the area's physical dimensions.  (The sensation was disorienting.)  As an undergrad, Turrell studied something called the "Ganzfeld effect."  It is a perceptual phenomena resulting from uniform and unstructured stimulation; as much about loss of vision as it is about seeing.  Aten Reign's successive colors also create distinct after images, adding to the sensory confusion.  Iltar is another installation that uses sensory deprivation.  It consists of a dark, indistinct room with what looks like a dark rectangular screen illuminated by the faintest of light projected onto the two opposite walls.  One optical effect is that the lights start to seem as if they are pulsating; another, the rectangle seems to grow darker.

I have to admit, I was a touch disappointed with Iltar.  There was quite a wait before I could see it.  The installation setting consists of a small room, and only two or three viewers are allowed in at a time.  One result was heightened expectations that weren't quite met.  Still, it was an interesting experience.  My favorite installations though are Afrum and Prado both 1967, and Ronin 1968.

Afrum, 1967.  This is a cross-corner
Turrell has said that he wants to treat light as material, not just as a source of illumination.  And his piece Afrum succeeds sensationally at that.  It is a cross-corner projection, consisting of two apertures each beaming light onto an adjoining wall.  If you see it, you'll think at first that it is a three-dimensional object suspended in a corner.  Although, it also seems to change shape as the viewer moves around the room; it seemingly shifts from cube to rectangle to trapezoidal shape.  Only by walking up to the corner, does it becomes apparent that there is nothing solid there; instead, only light projected onto the walls.  Unlike Afrum, Prado and Ronin each consist of only one aperture from which light is beamed.  But, like Afrum, Prado and Ronin appear tangible, like something tactile.  Ronin appears as a separate plane, slightly apart, seemingly angled away from the wall plane upon which it is projected.  Whereas, Prado looks like a light filled doorway, you almost think you could walk through it.  It is only up close that the illusions becomes apparent.

Ronin, 1968.
I can't emphasize enough how special this show is; or the extent to which it changed how I think of both light and sensory perception.  It made me more aware that light can be experienced as not only a source of illumination for physical objects, that it can transform itself into an apparent thing in its own right.  Or, transform an environment into something quite alien----and otherworldly.  And, if I didn't often question the veracity of my senses prior to this show, I will now!

Guggenheim Museum, 1071 Fifth Avenue (@89th Street), NYC.  Unfortunately the show ends on the 25th of September.