James Turrell at Clemson: Notes on the Appropriation of Light

March 19, 2008

We are familiar with the work of James Turrell from the segment which featured him from the Art:21 documentary we viewed in class a few weeks back. There, Turrell was highlighted for his ongoing work on the Roden Crater in the Arizona desert, but in his lecture last week here in Clemson, he spoke at length of his work and love affair with light.

Turrell began his talk to the packed auditorium in Lee Hall rather profoundly–in a way that was actually befitting to the enormity of his subject and medium. Turrell spoke of the influence a member of the Hopi Indian tribe had on him in his formative years, of how this man taught Turrell to interpret signs, not only in nature, but in people’s interaction patterns with one another. He exhorted the audience to recognize and be aware of how we are each signs to one another, and to not only embrace the idea, but to take responsibility for it. If this seems like an almost fatherly statement, it comes from a man who has the worldly and professional experience to back it up. As we were told by way of introduction to the man, since 1968, Turrell has won 19 art awards and has been the recipient of three honorary doctorates. He half-jokingly mentioned that aviation supported his art habit until his work became self-sustaining financially.

Fascinatingly, Turrell’s jaunts between the clouds showed him that light is multifaceted–the light in the atmosphere is different from the light we experience on terra firma, which is different from the kind of light we can see with our eyes closed: the full vision of dreams.

While this revelation is important to the evolution of Turrell’s work with light, let me backtrack and talk for a moment about Turrell’s young life. As the Art:21 documentary pointed out, Turrell was raised a conservative Quaker, and spent a considerable amount of time in meeting houses with his Grandmother, who instructed the young phenom that they were there to both “wait upon the light” and “greet the light” in the silent awe of meditation. From these moments, Turrell’s fascination with light was born. Through later study, he made the connection that spiritual experience is often described using the vocabulary of light in an attempt to verbally convey the wonder and awe of God’s felt presence. Perhaps because of this, or related to it, Turrell pointed out that light can be seen as a subtext in the fine arts through the work of the Impressionists, Rembrandt, Caravaggio, and the Hudson River school artists. From these references, we can conjure the way light is handled by painters. Additionally, the handling and appropriation of light has been used by photographers. Yet, Turrell differentiated himself from painters and photographers of light by becoming interested in how light is “the revelation itself.” Because of his fixation on the “thingness” of light, Turrell turned his attention to the problem of shaping it. To this end, he built spaces that held, or apprehended, light in ways that drew attention to the very “thingness” of light that the secondary apprehension of a painting or photography obscured–he brought people into direct contact with the plasticity of light that creates picture planes in the world.

Turrell’s inspiration for projecting light onto different surfaces to create these planes comes from the allegory of Plato’s cave (see Republic, book 7). Turrell accordingly set up his studio such that he would be able to play with “the projection of reality on a cave wall.” From these projections, he realized that light refuses to sit on a surface; rather, it will only appear in front of or alongside surfaces. Additionally, the planes Turrell created from his clever projections appeared so real that several people injured themselves from trying to lean against walls that seemed to be solid but were really only projected light. The plasticity and illusory quality of light is supportive of Turrell’s insistence that light exists in (a) hypothetical space.

If Turrell’s artistic planes of light were designed to allow people a glimpse into the otherwise obscured hypothetical space, another of his aims dealt with the idea of the paradox that light both obscures and reveals. To return to his experience in aviation, Turrell said that one of the reasons atmospheric light is different from light as we see it on the ground is that the latter obscures the stars–the former illuminates them. Intrigued by the balance and life-sustaining quality of this paradox, Turrell turned his creative energies to dramatizing the paradoxes of “luminous emptiness” and “the filled void” by showing how it is possible to see behind the eyes with the use of afterimages. In terms of the experience of these paradoxes in physical or virtual space, Turrell claimed that cyberspace represents this new a-directional landscape, a “space” utterly devoid of the notion of up or down, left or right. If this is true, and the effects of dramatizing the “luminous emptiness” are in our hands, then Turrell is rightly optimistic in saying that we are actively involved in the reality we live in. To demonstrate this assertion, Turrell installed a work in Texas where people can literally make the sky any color they like by changing the context of vision. Indeed, Turrell seems to be a supporter of the Borges notion of many possible worlds such that when a child of the future asks, “What color is the sky?” we have the freedom and broadness of vision to reply, “What color would you like?”

At this point, Turrell had been comfortably talking for an hour and a half. Needing to leave to attend to other matters of my day, I unfortunately heard nothing of the Rodin Crater project save that it is expected to open in 2012 and will be a structure taller than the pyramids (another wonder of the world, I wonder…).

The last point I heard Turrell make was that he sought ways to make people submit to the experience of contemporary art. He wishes to create art that people can literally enter rather than simply pass through.


One Response to “James Turrell at Clemson: Notes on the Appropriation of Light”


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