James Turrell: A Retrospective
26 May 2013 - 6 April 2014
Review by Siofra McSherry
LACMA is hosting one of three concurrent retrospectives of James Turrell’s work, alongside the Guggenheim in New York and the Museum of Fine Arts, Texas. In total the three museums will cover 50 years of production and are devoting 92,000 square feet to the artist. It is a monumental installation involving remarkable feats of engineering, as these works require entire rooms to be built around them according to the artist’s precise designs, with concealed crevices for light bulbs, false room divisions, and curving walls.
In order to protect the works, visitors to LACMA’s show are required to stay several feet away from them, which frustrates most attempts to figure out what trick is being played on the eye or mind. Forty-minute queues precede some works, which places them in the context of a consumable entertainment event, and tends to drain them of their meditative and spiritual aspects. The museum is doing what it can to make the pieces accessible. However, the queues and stress caused by a popular major retrospective illuminate the reasons why Turrell’s works are found in remote, specially built, and private locations across the world, notably the landscape intervention project at Roden Crater near Flagstaff, Arizona, which is closed to the public; it is accessible by personal invitation only.
Represented here through models, ground plans and photographs, the infamously rarely seen volcano uses the altered contours of the landscape to affect the viewer’s experience of the sky. Documentation of previous Skyspaces reveals Turrell’s delight in being able to site a particular piece within a building by Tadao Ando in Japan, whose architecture places the work within an unbroken minimalist setting. Such totalised experiences are impossible to replicate in a gallery, but LACMA’s presentation succeeds in teasing out the frisson around the edges of the pieces, their difficult entry and exit points. The work takes time and focus to enter into, as the viewer’s mind takes time to adjust to the light.
After five or so minutes within ‘Key Lime’, the viewer starts to recognise depth and perspective within the interspersed boxes of light, revealing a little more of the concealed construction behind the glass. The black-out immersion work ‘Dark Matter’ reveals a slight incandescence after thirty. Across the exhibition, physical edges are difficult to make out or are concealed. A corner construction holds a diamond-shaped space filled with blue light’it is impossible to work out how it is built. The recent and delightful holograph series generates entirely ephemeral imprints of light that float and mutate above the glass surface. It is difficult to consider these pieces to have edges at all. Turrell’s interest in isolating the experience of perception foregrounds the aura of the work of art, and at times seems to whittle away everything else.
‘St. Elmo’s Breath’ presents the viewer with a flat plane in a darkened room: rather than viewing a screen, we are looking into a partitioned room filled with purplish light. ‘Breathing Light’ takes the viewer up steps, through a canvas-shaped hole in the white gallery wall, into a room shaped like a rounded rectangle and illuminated by shifting colours. This is like standing inside an LED, or a 1960s ideal home in space. The floor drops off abruptly before meeting the back wall, something the drenching light and curved walls effectively disguise, necessitating a warning from security. Immersive Turrells have caused injuries in the past due to disorientation, since spaces appear to be solid, and vice versa. Turrell’s work is beautiful before anything, and that unusually consistent aspect, along with the immersive nature of the experience, tends to disable critical discussion. If wonder and awe are adequate, these works provide them, even in these imperfect conditions.