James Turrell vs. You


I met someone recently who was obsessed with where I was from.

But where did you live before that, they asked. And before that?

I told them.

And... before... that?

They were a performance artist. After a while, I began to wonder if this was part of their thing, so I turned the tables, asked them the same:

Where were you from, before here?

They shrugged.





Their parents had been itinerant; moved home at a whim. At a moment's notice they might have been taken to the city, or the shore; Adelaide, Perth... driven across the Nullarbor... wound up in a small village somewhere, a nobody.

By the time they moved to Melbourne, they'd had no home, never been local, weren't from anywhere.

Footloose, your truest friends are those you can carry. For me that had meant books; for them it was art.

They told me the names of artists I forgot immediately. They talked about them capturing something raw and powerful, lighting a fire in them for reasons they couldn't express.

But we know: money or sex, god or success, true love, the senses... like it or not, it's the sublime we're chasing.

All I had for them were: religious experiences in a world where god doesn't exist.

I told them about James Turrell.

A few years ago, I'd never even heard of him. But the first time we met, he sent me tripping.

I wrote about him - nothing special, but popular with people about to visit Minamidera who want the experience ruined.

Because the nature of a James Turrell work is immersion.

At its simplest, he's an artist who paints with light.

The pieces he creates are highly resistant to being photographed -

To make up for all the work that photographs better than it is, he quips.

– so images of them never live up to the real thing, the same way it’s never that vivid to hear someone else describe their dream. Light has to be seen by the naked eye, felt on the skin; massless, a photon shapes a room. Light is architecture, creating space through illumination, or obscuring, the way bright sun is blinding.

This art tends be something you step within, it disorients:

Grasping for what seemed like a wall, a woman in America fell into nothing.

Another, experiencing the light as soft and velvety, dived headlong into its concrete.

You see cubes that aren't really there; the real sky altered by the fake colours around it. The sunlight you're bathing in turns out to be fluorescence. Or - sitting in the dark, shapes emerge from the gloaming; nothing's changed... just your night vision kicking in.

Turrell's no visionary. He's not showing you how he sees, but how you see. He's proving that perception is faulty and weird, that we're making it up as we go.

Showing that we're living in our own realities: shaping the world by seeing.

And then there's this:

Half a century ago, he began his work in Roden Crater. A viewing gallery to the heavens, an attempt - as yet unfinished - to bring the celestial to you.

When it's complete, you'll be able to wander its corridors, experiencing the sky like an ancient.

Being immersed in light is a goal of his art, but also a goal of all spiritual practices. There's a reason we claim to see the light, why near-death experiences feature tunnels of it... why we call the fucking thing enlightenment.

These are places to feel the sublime.

Many of them were inspired by his childhood in Quaker meetings; simple rooms with a focus on quiet thought.

They believe in God, he says, I believe in art.

Only art isn't real. His light isn't godly, it's electric. He'll show you things, but only things in your own mind. They're real because you perceive them to be... but what you're really seeing is the You, who is looking. Your own desire to believe.

Close your eyes: there's nothing.

You're no one.