James Turrell: the architect of space and light

James Turrell is a North American artist (77 years old) internationally renowned for his work related to space and light. The truth is everything he does fascinates us and that’s why we’d like to talk about his life and works.

Since he was a child, Turrell developed an interest in cosmological phenomena, due, partly, to the flights he took with his dad, an aeronautical engineer. In fact, he obtained his own pilot licence for the first time at just 16 years old. And his mother’s Quaker beliefs led him to the discovery that each person may experience an inner light.

From 1961 to 1965, he studied psychology, maths, history of the arts and other scientific subjects such as geology and astronomy at the Pomona College at Claremont, California where his research combined art and technology.

“Turrell is one of the founders of the Light and Space Movement in California, having invented new forms that intensified the experience of light and perception.”

In his more than 80 “skyspaces”, located in public spaces as well as in private collections and museums in the United States, Europe, Japan and Australia, Turrell built environments with strategic openings and hidden LED screens in order to bring the cosmos closer to the spectators who are watching the installation. And by means of his “ganzfelds”, he has filled many indoor spaces with a kind of luminously coloured mist and planes of lights that you can almost touch. Marvellous.

Such is his obsession with light, that during his long career, Turrell has made it something with which to extract and implement the sensuality that flows from sensations and, by default, the pleasant experience and reflection that result from them. And, in fact, in 2013, LACMA organized a look back on his 50 years of work and experimenting, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston presented a selection from their own collection. And that same year, he also designed “Aten Reign” for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in the city of New York. The work consists of a “celestial space” illuminated by hidden LED lights, that flooded the inside roundabout with changing atmospherical colours.

“Turrell tries to makes us see light not as something that reveals but as a revelation in itself.”

His most incredible project conceived in 1974 and on which he worked for 30 years, is an observatory with multiple cameras constructed under the Roden crater in the Painted Desert near Flagstaff, Arizona in which he used the crater in the form of a bowl as a great opening for a celestial space. The profits he made from his cattle ranch, Walking Cane, helped finance the project.

The truth is that his work can only be understood through his own specific reflective view of the senses and the “materiality” of light. That’s why to stand before any of his installations is a visual and sensitive experience. Each of his installations becomes a wordless thinking experience. The aim of his artistic proposal is to provoke a feeling of presence that is produced in space, where we can end up almost feeling an entity, a physical feeling that we perceive through our senses. Similarly to what happens in the skyspaces, his more numerous productions, camera-observatories have been conceived to observe the sky, specially at dawn and at dusk, when the tones of light change our view of the sky, constructing our own experience through our perception.

“His installations defy our sight and our understanding of light.”

Roden Crater is his longest lasting and most ambitious work to date. It’s situated inside an active volcano in the Arizona desert. It is still unfinished, it’s closed to the general public and an entry permit must be requested to access. Initiated in 1979, this observatory, initially conceived to contemplate night skies and solar phenomena, was built without intervening the space and will be Turrell’s great legacy when he passes.

The Ganzfeld Effect – the complete loss of perception of reality- discovered by a German psychologist in the 30s, was the core idea for Apani, carried out for the Biennal in Venice in 2011, where visitors entered space and perceived a flat projection, a wall of colour that was really a room full of light. It gave the feeling that one was surrounded by a sea of colour that changed tone and created a sense of movement, similar to swimming in light.

That same year, also in 2011, he presented Light Reignfall, an installation of round spheres which can only be entered individually and that completely block the spectator denying him contact with the outside world. Once inside, it is up to the participant to decide if they prefer a more extreme experience with intermittent lights or a more gentle, slow one where the colours move slowly. In this spaceship, lying on a bed, a light show begins that makes you lose all sense of depth, making you wonder if your eyes are open or closed because the light penetrates through your eyelids.

Breathing Light, which aims to alter perception so that the spectator believes that he is in a state of zero gravity, with no ceiling or floor. Only coexisting with him or herself and the environment. This was used to inspire Drake, the rapper for the scenes in the videoclip he made for Hotline Bling.

“We usually use light to illuminate the things that surround us but I am interested in a very personal light, our inner light”

(*) Cover photo: “Apani” (2011) from the Ganzfeld series, photo “Passages of Light”, “pink” photo: Las Vegas (2012), “blue sky” photo and “Stone Sky” photo (2005) by Florian Holzherr. Courtesy of Jumex Museum · “red”photo: “Aten Reign” at the Guggenheim by The WILD Magazine · “Roden crater” photo by Arizona State University.


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