The artist James Turrell is a master manipulator of the way people experience space. His all consuming installations are like space age optical illusions. They will immerse you in a seemingly infinite light field. Since the 1960s, Turrell has been fascinated by light—he first had this revelation while looking at the rays of light pouring off a slide projector during an art history class at Pomona College. Ever since then, he has been exploring ways to make light the focal point of his artwork rather than using it to illuminate something else. He told the New York Times, “I’m interested that light has thingness itself, so it’s not something that reveals something about other things you’re looking at, but it becomes a revelation in itself.”
This summer three major art museums are concurrently holding retrospectives of his work. The one at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art opened on May 26th. A show at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston opens on June 9th, and finally one at the Guggenheim in New York City will open on June 21st. In Houston, the museum already has a site-specific piece connecting the main building to a newer one. The Guggenheim has commissioned a site-specific piece that is currently being installed in the main rotunda. But the retrospective at LACMA might be the biggest and most intense experience, which is fitting, as Turrell had such a large influence on LA’s Light and Space Movement.
Inside the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, visitors who book their tickets in advance can experience Turrell’s Light Reignfall, which only accomodates one person at a time. It is essentially a huge sphere with stairs leading up to it, and each visitor must wait his/her turn until an assistant in a white lab coat invites him/her to lie on a flat bed, like an MRI, and choose the “hard” or “soft” experience. The visitor will then be completely enclosed in the sphere to witness a private 10 minute light show accompanied by beeping noises in a pair of headphones. According to Christine Y. Kim, LACMA’s associate curator of contemporary art and co-curator of the exhibit, the experience is meant to induce an “alpha state” between waking and sleeping. The sensation has been likened to a kaleidoscope. Some people report seeing memories from their childhood.
If you’re in LA, hurry up and book your tickets because the Light Reignfall part of the retrospective (which has separate timed tickets from the rest of the show) is already sold out until mid-September. New Yorkers can also visit Turrell’s permanent installation “Meeting” at MoMA PS1.