Experiencing The Experience Of Light – Concerning Space Art

James Turrell's

James Turrell’s “Sky Spaces”

“If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, Infinite.” – William Blake

Since the first visual artistic expressions, light and space have impressed viewers and altered their perception. One can only imagine the astonishment of Earth’s first inhabitants when, by the play of light and shadow, they watched on caves’ walls horses and bison come to life. One can still be deeply touched emotionally and elevated spiritually by the light that passes through the glass windows and brings life to the immense space inside Chartres.

Depending on the sensitivity of the viewer, sensory perception can be affected by light and space to such an extreme that one can experience from sublime states to dizziness, confusion and even hallucinations. This phenomenon is known as Stendhal’s syndrome after the famous 19th-century French author Stendhal. When he visited the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence, he saw Giotto’s frescoes for the first time and was overcome with emotion. In Interfaces of Performance, edited by Maria Chatzichristodoulou, Janis Jeffries, and Rachel Zerihan, he wrote:

absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty…I reached the point where one encounters celestial sensations…Everything spoke so vividly to my soul. Ah, if I could only forget. I had palpitations of the heart…Life was drained from me. I walked with the fear of falling” (196). Stendhal did not just see art, he experienced art to such an extent that he was not prepared to sustain its impact.

Not everyone is affected in the same way and, instead, most of the art viewers have a superficial, distracted glimpse of an artwork and move on. To fully experience an artwork, one needs to intentionally prepare oneself and to be present. John Dewey, in his book Art as Experience, describes this concept: “things are experienced but not in such a way that they are composed into an experience. There is distraction and dispersion” (36). Dawna Schuld quotes Dewey in an essay she wrote for the Light and Space Exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego.

As for everything else in life, one perceives reality based on past experiences or future expectations. Whenever one is able to neutralize these associations in the present moment one is able to have a raw experience of reality. Light and space artworks aim to carve such space into the viewers’ experience.

Edmund Husserl, who was the German philosopher that established the field of phenomenology, suggested that one could train oneself as an observer to suspend his preconceptions and consider experience as it occurs. Technically known as bracketing, also called epoché or phenomenological reduction, this act of suspending judgement is tremendously difficult to reach and sustain.

For example, one can try looking at an object and at the same time be aware of oneself. After a few seconds, the flow of associations will make one either forget the object or forget oneself. Light and space artists reduce the flow and facilitate an immediacy to reality by eliminating distractions and creating disorientation in viewers. Through a process of sensory deprivation, the artists reset the viewers to a “tabula rasa” state providing an opportunity for an unfiltered experience that translates into a process of self-awareness and self- observation while looking at the artworks.

As formalized by Merleau-Ponty—another eminent figure in phenomenology—and as stated in Truth: Engagements Across Philosophical Traditions by David Wood and Jose Medina, “we are no longer present at the emergence of perceptual behaviors; rather we install ourselves in them in order to pursue the analysis of this exceptional relation between the subject and its body and its world” (198).

In this sense, in the artworks of light and space artists, one of the essential elements that completes the piece is the viewer. The work does not exist without him, since he is the experience. Like in an infinite loop, light, space and viewer’s perception become the objects and the medium of the artworks. In this view, light and space art becomes expressly an experiential art.

The light and space movement originated in Southern California in the ‘60s during the space race and Vietnam war. Often overlooked and characterized as a lesser branch of East Coast minimalism and criticized for its apparent superficiality—as noted in Monica Johanovich-Kelley’s Review of Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface—the movement captures the essential dynamics of the culture in Los Angeles in that period. Artists focus on perception derived by experimentation with psychedelics and Zen. Then, it is paired with the innovative application of the latest technology in lighting and materials developed as part of the activities of the aerospace and industrial design community.

Hyper-minimalist installations are carefully crafted by manipulating light within site specific requirements. Artists exploit the use of these essential elements to alter perception in an objective and direct way. The results are less dependent on the subjectivity of the viewer (culture, education, faith, etc…) and more related to the execution of the artwork in its specific environment.

This point is illustrated by Robert Irwin’s work, Fractured Light-Partial Scrim Ceiling-Eye-Level Wire, installed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1970-71. Irwin modified a space using scrim suspended in parallel below the ceiling, which diffused the light coming in from skylights. In addition, alternating cool and warm white filtered fluorescents subtly segmented the perceived volume of the space.

In Jan Butterfield’s The Art of Light and Space, she quotes Irwin as he describes the effect of his work:

people would go in, see nothing, leave, go into the next gallery and say, ‘I never noticed how bad the light is in here, there are lights and shadows all over the sculptures.’ No connection was ever made. I went away feeling that a point had been made and the point had to do with simply paying attention (24).

According to Dawna Should, “the work reset the perceptual status quo, so that the museum visitor walked away from it sufficiently ‘off-balance’ to effect an alteration in her attentional faculties” (109).

Because of these effects, light and space artworks are often associated with metaphysics but also with science. Irwin and Turrell, for instance, were strongly influenced by a collaborative study of sensory threshold as part of the art and technology program initiated by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in early 1969. Irwin, Turrell and other artists spent time in anechoic

chambers experimenting with experience, which is noted in Patrick Beveridge’s Color Perception and the Art of James Turrell. Anechoic chambers were designed to completely insulate from exterior sources of noise and simulate space of infinite dimension. The artists’ commitment to research shows how introspection becomes part of the art practice not only as an end result. Consequently, Dewey explains “the artist embodies in himself the attitude of the perceiver while he works” (48).

Turrell’s artistic path developed in this social and historical context. He settled in Santa Monica in the Mendota Hotel that he had transformed in his studio. There he began to explore the idea of cross corner projections, a strange optical effect that he discovered in one of his projects for graduate school. By placing a slide projector in an empty room and pointing its beam toward the corners of adjacent smooth plastered walls, he found that he could make a cube of light that seemed to occupy physical space.

Soon, he was using colored slides and moving the projector around the room. He discovered that he could make pyramids and rectangles of light, which seemed to lean against the wall or float halfway to the ceiling. After a few months, he switched the bulb from tungsten to xenon and was fascinated by the subtle difference in its effect. Light became a sculpture.

One of the first works to be created is called Afrum. Following the same schemes of composition, Afrum is assembled by aiming bright white light on two adjacent flat walls from slide projectors through a template. This is described in detail in Craig E. Adcock’s and James Turell’s James Turrell: The Art of Light and Space. The resulting projection is perceived by the viewers as a floating cube in the corner of a room. According to the angle of view the projection can invert or revert in space, challenging the viewers visual and tactile perception.

Referenced in Julia Brown’s book on Turrell, this quote from the artist perfectly describes Afrum:

in working with light, what is really important to me is to create an experience of wordless thought, to make the quality and sensation of light itself something really quite tactile. It has a quality seemingly intangible, yet it is physically felt. Often people reach out and try to touch it (13).

In describing another of Turrell’s cross-projection pieces, James Lawrence, in The Burlington Magazine, alludes to its effect that successfully deceives through perceptual illusion. But Turrell objects to this idea of illusion, stating in Julia Brown’s Occluded Front: James Turrell, that “people have talked about illusion in my work, but I don’t feel it is an illusion because what you see alludes to what in fact it really is: a space where the light is markedly different” (13).

Pursuing this artistic trajectory Turrell starts to experiment with natural light, developing what he refers to as “structural cuts,” which are borderless openings created by removing sections of wall and ceiling from his hotel studio. These experiments are the precursors of a well-known series of works called Skyspace. In 2005, the de Young museum in San Francisco commissioned Turrell with the creation of a Skyspace.

Three Gems, as it is titled, is situated in the Osher Sculpture Garden, at the de Young. Hidden in a grassy mound this subterranean installation is easy to miss. The structure is accessed from a down sloped path adorned by parallel rows of bamboo trees.  The brick’s basalt path leads to an archway then into a cylindrical space with red stone colored concrete walls. A white stucco stupa emerges at the center of this cylindrical space. A half circle walk around the wall leads to the entrance of the stupa.

Inside this small room, a concrete bench runs around its circumference. A perfect borderless circle cut in the roof of the chamber allows the viewers to watch the sky. The perception of the sky color is subtly altered by a timed looped LED lighting system inside the chamber and by the light conditions outside. The form of the structure, the material and its location also works in changing the perception of sound. Outside sound is present, but at a distance, while inside sound is perceived as tridimensional.

Set at the center of the floor is a circular polished marble stone in blue and green tones that perpendicularly mirrors the cut in the ceiling. Turrell explains the motivation behind his works by stating in Sarah Douglas’s In Their Words: James Turrell and Andy Goldsworthy that

the sky always seems to be out there, away from us. I like to bring it down in close contact with us, so you feel you are in it. We feel we are at the bottom of this ocean of air; we are actually on a planet, we are in space right now; we just don’t feel ourselves to be in space. Some forms of art and some forms of spirituality do give us that sense.

This is a contemplative work, which grows on the viewer the more he stays. It is made to be experienced at different times of the day, of the year and in absolutely no rush. As mentioned before, the viewer’s experience completes the work, since he is the integral link between the natural – represented by the stone – and the supernatural—the oculus.

The title Three Gems resonates with the Buddhist idea of taking refuge as an opportunity for introspection and reflection. Indeed, the installation is a refuge where space collaborates with light and sound to usher the viewer into a refuge within himself. The experience is not confined to the moments spent at the artwork location but reverberates, at least for some time, after one resurfaces to normality.

Sounds and images are more vivid, distinct and almost tangible—it is like standing at the doors of one’s own senses and watching the impressions coming in. It is a peculiar experience similar to watching one’s own life at a movie theatre, or as Turrell puts it: you are “perceiving yourself perceiving” (68).

Building on these blueprints, Turrell’s next work advances toward a closer integration between art and architecture. Skygarden is located in the new San Francisco Federal Building. Open to the public, Monday through Friday from 8:30 AM to 5:30 PM, one has first to provide a government issued ID, go through a security screening, take a skip-stop elevator to the 12th floor and finally walk down a flight of stairs to the 11th floor where the main entrance is located.

Skygarden extends Turrell’s works into the urban setting. It can be viewed and experienced from outside, inside and from a distance. It is a three-story recessed space cut into the facade of the building. Neon lights are installed inside all along the perimeter of the cut and extended diagonally outside. Additionally, another series of neon is embedded in the plaza.

The neon light colors change gradually from blue to violet to indigo and so does the visual experience. The public can also access two bridges that cross the space at the 12th and 13th floors. The structure is mainly made by concrete walls and metal panels. Despite what the name would suggest, there is no garden.

The impression that the structure creates, particularly from the 12th and 13th floors bridges, is of a big giant canvas framed by the neon lights. The cityscape is the background where an ever-changing stream of people, cars, clouds and airplanes flows. The gap in the facade represents also a break in the momentum of urban life.

Skygarden, like Skyspace at the de Young, is another place where one can take refuge, rebalance and resurface anew. This experience is poetically expressed by Deborah Wye in The Light Inside: “one becomes Alice falling through space, floating trancelike, mesmerized. Our worldly, late-twentieth-century preoccupations are bypassed, and our capacity for awe is expanded” (6).

James Turrell and other light and space artists launch viewers into a direct experience of themselves and their surroundings. A shift in perception is created by stimulating the viewer’s sensory apparatus with uncommon stimuli in an unfamiliar setting. This process puts one in a vigilant state. The stage is now set. The viewer unchained from preconceived notions is able to explore essential questions evoked by experiencing the artworks and himself simultaneously.

In Julia Brown’s Occluded Front: James Turrell, Turrell stated about his works:

I am more interested in posing questions than in answering them” (13). For those that will patiently devote time and attention, the answers will suddenly emerge—as Dawna Schuld describes—in a new sense of perception and “with one’s heightened senses now attuned to the subtleties of the conscious fringe, [one will] encounter a more vivid world than the one we left behind” (121).

Leonardo De Vivo works in the advertising for Google.  He holds a B.A. in Italian and art history from the University of California, Davis. 

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