James Turrell

Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA)

Less a theorist than a phenomenologist, James Turrell invites us not to think light and space abstractly, but to live and explore them freshly as they are continuously and contingently re-solved by us in experience. His environmental situations and temporal contexts make possible a return to a radical form of consciousness—one in which we can “feel the presence of light inhabiting a space” and renew our “primal connection” with an embodied vision “not limited to just that received by the eyes,” but understood also as a mode of “entry of the self into that which is ‘seen.’” Facilitating such entry into the seen, however, is no easy matter. As Turrell points out, “for something so powerful” as light, the “situations for its felt presence are fragile.”

Objectively described (an oxymoronic exercise, particularly in relation to Turrell’s work), Between that Seen, 1991, is a variation on Turrell’s shallow-space constructions in which he alters a given rectilinear space by cutting a boxlike opening into a double wall and illuminating it with fluorescent lighting fixed along the cavity’s inside parameter. At Williams, the given space was a small gallery with a slightly vaulted ceiling that admitted entry through an opening (with a bench on either side of it) in the center of one wall. In the middle of the opposite wall, the construction seemed to “float” like an unstable three-dimensional presence hovering between two more stable, if low-illumined, blushes of light. The major variation on previous shallow-space constructions was the admission, from a hidden gallery skylight, of natural light, which interacted with the fluorescent illumination within the cut-out space. Thus experience of the construction is made dynamic—not only by the viewer’s perceptual activity and bodily movement, but also by contingent and continual changes wrought by weather and hour. From a distance, the effect was that of engaging an intangible “presence” (not exactly no-thing, but also not quite something), its substance softly rectangular in form, its consistency and color foglike and mutable. When approached, this “presence” became disorienting—paradoxically maintaining its palpability while appearing increasingly insubstantial. Once it was closed in upon by the viewer (an activity marked by physical tentativeness), the presence revealed itself more precisely as a recessed absence that shocked one’s vision not only by this scandalous perceptual inversion, but also with its brilliant, reverberant, and indescribable color.

The radical quality of such a perceptual experience, however, depends upon the conditions under which one enters as well as negotiates its space. Thus Turrell expresses as much interest in approaches to his perceptual sites as in the site/sight themselves. Indeed, at Williams, the “between that seen” is doubly located—not only in the enclosed space of the construction, but also in the access to it. Repressed in exhibition literature, a very discreetly labeled “This Light Trap Corridor” provides this material site, both connecting and separating habitual, quotidian vision from the experience of vision as radical insight. This piece offers, finally, a far more ambivalent, ambiguous, and fragile experience of “between that seen” than does the work actually entitled Between that Seen. Its status as access, barely framed, this space is especially vulnerable to another register of contingent illumination—one informed by the vagaries and demands of public exhibition.

Encountered in isolation, the doorway framed a total, forbidding blackness that eradicated all scale and dimension. Visually impenetrable, “This Light Trap Corridor” demanded a physical navigation—tentative steps, arms outstretched to feel the way of what seemed its limitless and dangerous space. Although the floor felt flat enough underfoot, there was, nonetheless, a sense of falling into the space Between that Seen, as well as a sense of release from the blindness imposed by blackness—a welcoming of sight, of bounded space, and of the soft, embracing illumination of the chapellike room. During regular museum hours when the galleries were filled with people, however, phosphorescent arrows on the floor of “This Light Trap Corridor” were illuminated by a guard’s flashlight. (“Otherwise people get scared and don’t want to go in,” the guide remarked.) The slight phosphorescence made the corridor unbelievably small: one was immediately hemmed in on the left by a wall and directed toward an opening obliquely positioned to the near right. Walking (not falling) into Between that Seen provided release not from limitless space but from tightly bound and directed space. The gallery became expansive, marked by what seemed a great open distance from the entrance to the far wall—the “presence” of the no-thing “between that seen” illumination of the side lights barely apparent. Without the visual deprivation and physical amplification first experienced in “This Light Trap Corridor,” this second experience of Between that Seen perpetuated the habit of a vision lived primarily through the objective and distanced eye: it was more comprehensible than comprehensive, more abstractly thought than bodily experienced. In sum, the ironic lesson of this ambiguous exhibit is that the contingent both expands and contracts the work of perception, both enables and forestalls “entry into the seen.” Turrell would be amused.

Vivian Sobchack