Posts Tagged ‘Turrell’

It’s difficult to believe that it’s been over a month since I posted the first part of this piece. In the interim I’ve dealt with mom’s broken hip and a week in London, among other things. None of that is really an excuse, except to say that I’ve been crazy busy. Oh well. Back at it.

James Turrell often talks about his work in the context of Plato’s parable about the cave. I’m sure you know that one. Those kept prisoner in the cave can only see the shadows of what’s outside in the real world. They think that the shadows ARE the real world, not knowing that there is a larger, more vivid, much more complex world outside their cave. They don’t know that because their concept of the world is shaped only by what they perceive. Personally, I hate that parable; not because of what it says about sense perception but because Plato uses it to describe his notion of underlying forms and I’m SO not into Platonism.

But, I have to say that when Turrell uses the parable to explain the concept that we are living in a place far more wondrous than what we actually perceive, I get it. Personally, I draw a hard-line when the implication is that we live “in a reality that our mind creates” because that leads down a subjectivist rat hole that has historically led (IMHO) down a very scary path. I refuse to believe that we create our own reality: reality is not a social construct or a linguistic construct or a perceptual construct. Reality is reality. Existence exists. That is my belief system and I’m sticking to it.

Now, the part of the equation that I DO buy into wholeheartedly it the idea that what we commonly consider the totality of reality is subject to the sensory limitations of our perceptual apparatus. To me, the profound power of Turrell’s work is that he forces us to confront the perceptual and cognitive limitations and to look deeply. I don’t want to burden that thought with New Age pseudo-spiritual fluff. Feel free to do that yourself. But, I see this work in a more objective way,

You see, I feel that awareness of subtlety and attention to detail are tools for cognitive tuning, living as fully as possible in the world, creative success, and the ability to maximally experience joy, beauty, and wonder. And, the more joy, beauty, and wonder we are able to glean from our experience of the world the more fulfilled we can be as individuals. Turrell’s work, by encouraging us to look more deeply than typically possible, makes us more aware, makes our experience more nuanced, and positions us to have a deeper, more fulfilling life.

That’s a pretty bold statement and, just to be clear, it came from me not from Jim. I’m not sure he’d describe his work the way I do; but I’m sure he’d approve of my assessment. And… It’s my assessment that leads me to the aesthetic value I see in his work.

Although teleology is something that much of 20th and 21st century art has forsaken, I still believe in the old notions of direction and purpose. I know, I’m old-fashioned. In many cases, artists have “purposes” with which I disagree. I’m okay with that. What I’m not okay with is intellectual activity that is purposeless. If you make violent art to sensitize the viewer to the horrors of violence, I may not like it, but I’ll respect it. Conversely, if you make violent art just for the sake of violence, I’ll look you in the eye and call it valueless.  The point is that art have a purpose.

My own belief is that the value of art comes when that purpose is, in one way or another, directed toward making we humans better for having experienced it. In the case of my friend Michael Newberry, the purpose of his work is to make us see the greatness we can achieve and the capacity we have for joy. I love his work because it has that purpose. At the diametrically opposite extreme, consider Alain Resnais’ film “Night and Fog”. The purpose if the file is to make us see the utter depths of depravity we can fall to when a nationalistic genocidal machine is allowed to grow from a history of antisemitism and the capacity the Nazis had for bestiality. I love that film, although I can probably never watch it a second time, because it has a purpose. The purpose is painful, horrifying, and tragic. But it strives to make us better by making us wary of the depths to which we can fall. Terrifying as it may be, we are changed by watching it; hopefully made just a bit more empathetic and compassionate.

But what about Turrell?

Okay. That brings me to the aesthetics of nuance. The work of James Turrell makes us better human beings because it makes us pay attention to subtlety. By experiencing Turrell’s work we wrestle with perception, we experience surprise, we watch, we wait, we look, and we see. In each case, we exercise our cognition and we tune our senses. We stand in a museum looking at a hole in a wall and some fluorescent tubes. Big deal, you say. Damn right it’s a big deal. Because, if you give yourself time to experience that light, to let it work it’s magic on your visual cortex, to become sensitive to its subtlety, you may just walk out of that museum and notice a flower you’d otherwise have missed, see a sunset you might have otherwise been too busy driving past, hear a bird you might not have noticed, smell the aroma of the bread at the bakery you walk past, touch a stone whose texture you may have missed, experience a smile that might have gone unnoticed, feel just a bit more intensity in that night’s orgasm, LIVE just a bit more fully than you lived before…

…Just maybe… the world will seem a little bit more blessed with  wonder.

That’s an aesthetic worth experiencing.

I first saw a substantial exhibition of Jim Turrell’s work in the late 1980’s at the Temporary Contemporary in Los Angeles. I became an obsessive fan of his work on that day.

I remember vividly the piece that turned me into a Turrell follower. I walked down a darkened hallway and turned to my right. A couple of people were standing in a room but otherwise I was alone. At the far end of the room was what looked like a glowing painting whose color shifted from red to blue across the length of the panel. I could not see any lighting that would explain the intense glow of the painting. Perhaps it was painted on a translucent plastic sheet and backlit. I did not know.

When the other visitors left the room I sat down on the floor against the rear wall and in silence I experienced the “painting”. After perhaps 5 minutes, I was unable to determine exactly what I was looking at. So, I approached it. The closer I got to the piece the more confused I was about what I was seeing. I walked up, within inches, of the piece and reached toward it. To my surprise, I was able to place my hand within the space of the piece and to realize that it was neither a canvas nor a translucent panel. This was not a painting at all. It was a cutout in the wall, lit from within the open space by a set of florescent tubes. My senses said it was solid; reality said it was nothing but light.

This was not a “well-lit” piece, it was a well-lit “nothing”. It was nothing become something through a sophisticated use of geometry, light, and perception. And… the material substance of the piece, its medium, was neither geometry nor light alone. It’s “medium” was the interplay of light and perception, the interplay of stimulus and neural response. It’s medium could not even exist were it not for light, vision, and neuroscience. At its most base level the piece could not exist without billions upon billions of bio-chemical synaptic conductance changes. That can be said of almost anything, but in this case, without that brain activity, the piece would have been, seriously, nothing. That was the late 1980s.

Fast forward to July 2013. Nearly 25 years have passed since that day I first experienced Jim Turrell. In the interim the magnum opus, Rodin Crater, has moved many tons of Earth closer to Turrell’s ultimate vision. His fame has grown exponentially. One no longer has the privilege of simply walking directly up to his pieces and placing a hand within. In fact, unless one forks over $25.00 per visit to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, his work is rarely even accessible.

It is the general inability to see collections of Turrell’s work that makes the LACMA show so significant. You might gather that I’m disappointed at the museum’s elitist view of the show whereby they have priced a lot of visitors out of the market and financially prohibited many would be Turrell enthusiasts from even seeing his work. Then again, I’m that free market capitalist dude that keeps saying we should just let the market work, so I’m being my own sort of elitist jerk for complaining. If the market will bear $25.00, so be it. But, for what it’s worth I think it does Turrell and the museum a disservice by charging what they do.

Let’s set aside the $75 that it cost for me and my 2 companions to get in. We did it. We saw the show. So, free market economics says that if I think the price is a problem we are part of it. Onward.

The LACMA Turrell Retrospective consists of 14 spaces and a “contraption”. The latter is a full body immersive experience that is booked solid for the rest of 2013, no doubt by patrons to whom $25.00 is the least of their worries. So, I did not get to see it. The 14 spaces are prints, 2 projections, a series of holograms, several spaces and corner constructions, a video and documentary exhibit on Turrell’s Skyspaces, models, and a documentary and photographic exhibit on Rodin Crater. All in all, it was a comprehensive show that provides a fabulous introduction to every aspect of Turrell’s ouerve.

Since I began by commenting on a light-painting, it should not be a surprise that my 2 personal favorite pieces are “Raemer, Pink, White” of 1969 and the 1992 piece “St. Elmo’s Breath”. Both of these pieces are similar in that they blur the distinction between physicality and evanescence. One must spend time with these works. When you do, they are powerfully emotional. Unfortunately, and I must say that I found this truly rude, the show was so busy that after 5 minutes of viewing pieces who’s signage specifically says to view for “5 minutes MINIMUM”, the security guards kicked us out of one of these spaces to make room for the waiting visitors. So, gone are the days of the 80s when I could “sit with a Turrell” for the time necessary to gain a full emotional response.

In my second part of this post I will describe much more of Turrell’s aesthetic and what I like about it. For now, let me just say that LACMA has staged a breathtaking overview of  Turrell’s work; one that demonstrates the breath of his art, the depth of his mind, and his devotion to showing us how to more intensely, more lovingly, perceive our world. Even at $25.00 per person it’s a must see show!