James Turrell

James Turrell remembers the instructions of his Quaker grandmother in the Meeting House: “Look inward and greet the light." And 854 feet of tunnels, 1.2 million cubic yards of earth and cinder, 660 tons of reinforced steel, 5,000 tons of concrete, and one giant 500,000-year-old volcano later, we must marvel at a child’s grasp of metaphor. Turrell’s ongoing desire to capture and re-create not only the light inside us (what we see when we close our eyes) but also the starry light of the heavens guides both his experimental Roden Crater Project and his recent museum installation.

The Roden Crater Project is finally near completion, after nearly thirty years of construction. Like a modern Stonehenge or Egyptian pyramid, the project will chart and measure the heavens while bringing it all into human proportions. In Sun and Moon Space, viewers will be able to observe lunar and solar cycles through a series of portals; every 18.61 years, the space will become a camera obscura and a detailed reverse image of the moon will appear on the stone walls. The 854 feet of the East Alpha Tunnel will end in one of Turrell’s Skyspaces, designed to capture light through a small circular aperture. And the Crater’s Eye, in the center of the volcano, houses four limestone plinths that create the impression of a curved horizon line, or “celestial vaulting,” experienced by low-flying pilots.

What the Roden Crater Project proposes to do with light and the art of seeing can be found, in a somewhat more manageable size, in Turrell’s museum installation work. Since the late ’60s, the artist, a cofounder of the Light and Space movement, has been using light—and our misunderstanding of its inherent complexities—to question how we perceive and receive visual information, especially color. “Behind the eye seeing” is a phrase Turrell uses for what goes on visually once we close our eyes and allow our minds to see for us, a type of mental vision that he attempts to bring into the corporeal world. The Gloaming, 2001, one of Turrell’s Dark Spaces, plays with this notion of imaginative vision. Viewers (no more than two at a time) make their way through several completely dark corridors to a platform. After the eyes adjust to the darkness, a small batch of white light with a dark center appears off in the distance. In the twenty minutes viewers may stay, the light ebbs and flows like a lunar eclipse, bounces around, and produces an assortment of shapes and silhouettes. The catch is that none of this really happens. It’s only our own eyes thinking they are seeing that produces such results: In the absence of actual signals received through the retina, mind-forged signals fill in. According to the artist, this fabricated movement constitutes the meeting of imaginative and physical vision.

Turrell is also intrigued by a bit of perceptual trickery known as the Ganzfeld phenomenon. Ganzfeld (“whole field”) refers to a visual field consisting of a single homogeneous color, such as a whiteout. Gasworks, 1991, slides the viewer into an elevated hollow ball, MRI-style, which is then infused with color. The piece is run from the outside by two technicians in lab coats who change the color inside the orb from deep blue to red to green—creating the sensation of a pure, parameter-less field of solid color. The effect is akin to the color seen after closing one’s eyes very tightly—another type of “imagined vision”—but magnified to envelop the whole body.

Turrell’s exhibition, and soon the Roden Crater, remind us that the rewards of viewing art come from internal rather than external stimuli. It’s the ultimate in interactivity—where even the daily functioning of the retinal cones gets manipulated into a source of artistic vision.

Joshua Rose