James Turrell’s installations at the Guggenheim left me in an altered state. Using light as his primary medium, Turrell’s art requires slow looking and an active acceptance of ambiguity—both conducive to entering a kind of contemplative trance.
He’s pursued his singular work, from early experiments with slide projectors in dark rooms to Roden Crater, his monumental environmental work-in-progress in the Arizona desert. Since most of us won’t get to Roden Crater—though I sure would like to—this year’s major shows in Los Angeles, New York and Houston offer a rare chance to see some big work by Turrell. Aten Reign, his transformation of the Guggenheim’s atrium into a massive cone of gradually shifting light and color, is the biggest temporary piece he’s created so far. The experience of it is quiet and meditative, shared with a crowd of people, and lasting about an hour. In other words, it feels less like an art exhibit than the sacred experience you might have with others in a temple or church.
Turrell has been open about this side of his work; he talks about light as revelation. A Quaker, he has designed a space for a Quaker meetinghouse in Houston that brings the sky directly into the room, translating the Quaker idea of finding the light within into outward form. But, given the times we are living in—many centuries after the ages of great sacred architecture—the art world can be a more or less welcoming alternative for such impulses. It’s less welcoming to the extent that talking about the connection of light with spiritual life can and does make some people uncomfortable (see Jed Perl’s piece in the New Republic).
Turrell may be better understood in the context of his predecessors in sacred architecture—including those who created the stained-glass light shows inside the great Gothic cathedrals. The Abbé Suger, who lived in the 12th century, brought together glass artists from all over Europe to make the innovative stained glass windows of the Abbey Church of St. Denis, the first truly Gothic building. The Abbé developed his own theology of light, involving three aspects: lux, lumen and illumination. Lux is physical light, from the sun or another source. Lumen is light transformed by sacred intention—having passed through the artist’s sparkling glass panels into a consecrated space. And illumination is that transformed light, standing for a divine, invisible light, apprehended within the viewer’s heart. This way of exploring how physical light can be transformed feels more useful to me in responding to James Turrell’s work than limiting the conversation to perceptual psychology—how the mind works to interpret the tricky behavior of photons.
Turrell knows all about the photons, and how we perceive them—he’s a mage of light and its effects. His predecessor, Abbé Suger, reminds us not to get hung up on the photons—to be open to the illumination within.