I think it is reasonable to say that James Turrell is obsessed with light. More specifically, he has made it his mission to drag the sky, the constellations, and the cosmos down to Earth. It does make for quite an image.
Indeed, somewhere in the Painted Desert region of Northern Arizona you will find Roden Crater. On and off for the past 43 years, James Turrell has been scurrying around in this cinder cone, excavating a precise labyrinth of viewing chambers. With his increasingly bushy white beard, he has set out to create a modern wonder in the tradition of the Incas.
So many years later and with so few having been made privilege to his project, it is fitting that the realisation of such a grand goal be shrouded in mystique. You can’t help picturing him as some figure out of mythology and, in a certain way, he has the portfolio to back this up.
James Turrell manipulates perceptions of reality in a simple and direct manner. His background in perceptual psychology shines through in his ability to readjust the way you interact with your environment. Roden Crater aside, he realises this best in his ‘Skyspaces’. In light of this series, it almost becomes a misnomer to label Turrell an artist. The subject of your gaze is nature – natural light – not the work. Looking at Turrell’s work is equivalent to staring at the painting’s frame.
As Turrell puts it, ‘my desire is to set up a situation to which I take you and let you see. It becomes your experience.’A skyspace sets out to submerge you in an environment of finely tuned colour gradients. Gentle hues illuminate smooth, alien architecture. Yet, a single geometric aperture intrudes on this perfect space. It presents the viewer with a vibrant pane of sky. It is incongruous and shocking.
By dislocating you from reality Turrell has set you up to look out on the sky from a distance and, in doing so, has brought the sky down to you. It sounds silly; in a sense it is – the idea of sky becoming tangible and appearing before you does share a worrying amount of conceptual ground with the 2005 animation ‘Chicken Little’. Perhaps, for a man who has set out to make light physical, recourse to the animated as a reference point is a testament to his success.
Turrell’s work has heavily influenced my approach to art. Like him, I am always trying to look at the form of light and how it shapes the content of a work. This can manifest as an abstract focus on the negative spaces or even as smaller models made of foam board. I know from experience that it can be easy to take an armchair artist approach to work that operates on such scale. Conversations with my brother tend to spiral in just this way till we arrive at some grandiose vision that will never exist.
While I’m sure that there are some Durham students who could buy a volcanic cinder cone of their own, there is simpler lesson to take away from Turrell’s work. We should always be looking to control the environment which our piece inhabits. No matter the scale, works exist in a space and that forms a part of how the work appears to us.
We can do little things to play off this. It might be as striking as the RA’s choice to present turquoise Hockney portraits against red walls. Maybe, you photograph your work in controlled conditions (please don’t start repainting your student rooms). Turrell teaches us about how far the experience of an artwork extends. This is something I always try to hold in my mind, especially when a piece just isn’t working out.