Saturday, July 20, 2013

From Cave to Light

James Turrell's work must be experienced and the exhibitions taking place from coast to coast this Summer with a combined retrospective between the LACMA and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, a site specific installation at the Guggenheim in New York City and a side show in Las Vegas at the Louis Vuitton City Center are an opportunity to do so. Considering the technical and operational resources involved to organize such shows, it may be an occasion not to miss.
To prepare for the visit at the MFAH to see James Turrell: the Light Inside, I read the book, James Turrell: a Retrospective published at the occasion of the nationwide event.
For once, I will relate my visit in the first person, because it is a very personal experience after all.

Upon making a reservation on the Internet for a 1:00 pm slot, the museum's site provided some practical information:
"Within the exhibition, visitors will encounter the following:
• Areas of near total darkness combined with dramatic lighting
• Optical illusions that can create a false perception of space
• Sloped flooring and raised platforms
• Narrow stairs without handrails"
Ten minutes early and not a soul waiting in line at the small entrance booth, I was told to come back exactly at 1:00 o'clock. Back on the dot, I was given a tag to put around my neck indicating my time slot and wandered in an anonymous hall reminding me of a school or a train station. A guard stopped me when I tried to follow the first sign written "Entrance" and I waited for two visitors to exit before walking in a white cave-like space. Aurora B, 2010, from the Tall Glass Series goes through a gradual transformation of colors in the course of several hours from dawn to dusk according to the comments on the wall, and at the time of my visit, the glowing light in the center was white surrounded by a pastel blue and pink aureole. The rectangular piece is the size of a small window, constructed with LED lights and frosted glass. Of course, I could not wait to witness the changes and carried on to the next cave where my eyes got hit by blue. Blinded by the light from the screen, I found a bench in the back of the white-walled space, sat and waited for my vision to accommodate and look at Rethro II Blue, 1969. The blue rectangle filling the whole wall has no focal point and the blue glow invades the room, carpet, visitors and melts away. I could see perfection, infinity, beyond blue... or nothing...just blue light.
Due to the ins and outs, the intermittent exposure to the hallway light played some tricks with my rods and cones when I looked at Rondo Blue, 1969, a minimalist construction.
Across the hall, a line of visitors had formed to see the installation reproducing the ganzfeld effect. With low voices, several guards-ushers  were instructing the visitors to take off their shoes, put on white booties... and wait. The atmosphere was quiet, full of expectations as we sat in front of an elevated stage. When it was my turn, I climbed a few steps, with a guard on each side (for fall prevention) and found myself bathing in pink, surrounded by walls dissolving in a pink fog. Some visitors were dancing and horsing around as guards (again) used arm signals to define a perimeter for their frolics. I missed the rush of adrenaline involved with the real thing experienced while flying (with instruments) in  clouds or driving through a blizzard in North Dakota when the road could be the sky and the ditches look like clouds. The colored armchair adventure is an attempt to reproduce what nature can do best, and I realized that all along a few visual cues kept me from being disoriented.
Moving on, my vision was slightly distorted, greenish for a few minutes, as I looked at the prints lining up the walls. They included  prints from the Roden Crater Site Plans, the Deep Sky and Spaces portfolio and the First Light portfolio (1989-90). The visit went on with Raethro II Blue, 1971, representative of the Shallow Spaces constructions, reverse of the earlier Projection Pieces. This time, the corner of the wall is cut and the projection of the light from inside the cavity leaves us believe that it is a flat surface with a colored shape projected on it, as opposed to Acro Green, 1968, an example of the previous Projection Pieces series, creating the illusion of shape on a flat surface. Next, Tycho White, 1967, from the Shallow Spaces series, the only work realized with two projectors is a rectangular minimalist white composition divided by a darker perpendicular line drawn by adjusting the two rays of light. I found the red and violet installation from the Wedgeworks series enthralling with its feel of immateriality and had an urge to walk through it to look beyond and discover some parallel world.
Of course, the biggest piece is the permanent installation underground between the two main buildings of the museum which gave the title to the show: The Light Inside. I always found it decorative, fun to go through when visiting the MFAH and other visitors look like they are too, playing in the space, walking back and forth.

The exhibition is a unique venue to see James Turrell's work from the permanent collection in a setting that allows to grasp the artist's production over the span of his career minus the Skylight series. However, I found the setting frustrating with constant interruptions and mundane details repeatedly distracting the visitor. Such a visit should flow from start to end and allow a smooth walk for the eyes, including lighting, colors of the walls and floor of the interim space between the works. Minimalism is demanding, perfection is the only option and the ambitious exhibition falls short of its goal, inspiring awe with the magic of light..

Two other permanent works are located in Houston with "One Accord" , Skylight at the Live Oak Friends Meeting House and "Twilight Epiphany", Skyspace on the Rice University campus.

no photographs allowed
photographs Flickr photo sharing

Ganzfeld effect
Skyspace, Rice University campus, Houston (detail)
"Twilight Epiphany", skyspace on the Rice University campus, Houston

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