the temple of turrell

my first encounter with james turrell was at ps1 - where i stumbled upon the piece meeting [which is sadly now closed for repairs]. at first i thought it was a projection of the sky. then suddenly i realized it WAS the sky. and thought how simple. how perfect. what is better to watch than clouds across the sky. and here's a room that is dedicated to that task [with massive gorgeous benches to boot]. 

image by giffen clark ott
someday i dream of swimming in a turrell pool. this is a far-fetched fantasy. but a girl can dream right?

so part of my impetus for going to LA last weekend was to see the turrell show at lacma. luckily my hostess and fantastic friend bri came with. it would have been an amazing experience solo, but it was definitely more fun with a likeminded art pal. 

Raethro II Green, 1969 - from turrell's website. 

turrell is just so in tune with his medium. light. it's astounding really. i mean i knew he was quietly intense [his art21 segment proves that]. but the exhibition included ephemera - letters and instructions to other institutions and it was like poetry. intense focused prose. the most pure, heartfelt, serious exploration of light i've ever had the joy to read.

when i look at a piece like the above - done in 1969 - so forward thinking - i can't help but wonder - how did ellsworth kelly feel OK with making paintings after viewing a turrell piece. i mean i like kelly's work - some i REALLY like - but sitting in a room with a green glowing shape that feels like it's hovering, or sitting in a room with a green painting shape ?? hmmm. 

to me turrell's work is of course about color. our visceral, internal, gut wrenching reaction to colors. it's also about color theory - how one color leads to another - how we interpret colors and after images and what happens when we are "lied" to by our eyes via color. 

but mostly it's about whatever it is you bring to it. for me it's breathing. i breathe differently when the light changes. i slow down. i feel the light - it enters me and then i breathe it out. it sounds hokey. but it's true.

it's also about precision. absolute confidence in placement, shape, height, depth. the paring down to absolute essentials so that a viewer is allowed to focus. to become one with what they are encountering. 

Akhob, 2013 Louis Vuitton, image from turrell's website

lacma had a similar piece to the above, but it was more of a square pyramid. you had to line up to enter. then you put on surgical booties [to keep the floor clean] and waited. the whole time a group of people in the piece at the top of the stairs is visible - they are walking around in a glowing atmosphere. at one point there was a little girl dancing [that was pretty magical]. it shifts from white, to blue, to hot hot pink... from outside the color is incredibly intense. we were forced into the corners of the room [later we'd learn that it was because if we sat in the middle of the bench our little heads would be visible from inside the room]. when we were up on the stair waiting to enter i spied the boxes of booties for all the visitors:

it felt very warholian. very much a behind the scenes glimpse of what it actually takes to put on a show. so. many. white. surgical. booties. 

the room itself was amazing. you are engulfed by light. you sense a beginning and an end, but it does sort of feel all encompassing. at certain moments the shifts are so intense that i felt my heart pound. my eyes flickered. my body responded viscerally. it was out of my control. if you faced one way - you'd confront a rounded corner scrim covered abyss shape. no way to tell how far away it is, or how deep. light emits, not really pulsing, but slowly fixating, alternating, changing. if you face the other way you see a hard edge rectangle - through that the top portion of wall of the room in which you just sat is visible. this rectangle is surrounded by another rectangle - made of light. maybe 1 foot wide [maybe less]. it pulses its own light - sometimes matching the rounded corner shape light. sometimes not. 

i ended up doing 180's. facing the abyss, facing the rectangle. watching how the light inside changed my perception of the wall outside the room [a room which i knew to be white]. the blue light forced it's compliment - orange/yellow. the hot pink forced a green/yellow. so simple, so scientific, so explainable, but still. still so mysterious and breathtaking. it literally took my breath away. 

Jump Start, 1990, from turrell's website

also on view were hydrocal models for works. in and of themselves they were stunning objects. if i could have found alice's drink me potion i would have gulped it down and climbed on in - any of them.

Present Tense, 1991 - from turrell's website

but really. the absolute best part. i mean the really fantastic thing that happened - the thing that thank goodness bri was with me to corroborate - is this [it's a long tale - ready?]:

so. i always try to be very pleasant to museum guards. most of them have to stand all day in a room, telling people to to stay away from the work. trying to be "invisible", but also present - as in don't even think you can mess with anything in here. the above isn't the piece that was in lacma, but it's the closest image i can find to it. the one at lacma had rounded corners and only one light on each side instead of 2.

we arrive. there are people on a bench strategically placed [like watching TV - a TV with nothing but color]. we take the wall. just allowing our eyes to adjust to the light. figuring out that the cut out in the wall was changing color. slowly. cold white to warm white to light blue to slightly more intense blue... the two lights facing the walls adjacent making round ovals of whiter light on the walls adjacent...

i turn to the guard. she's right next to me. she smiles. we make small talk - bri asks questions too, but i can't remember all hers, so i'm sticking to mine.

her: you know it's changing right?
me: oh yeah - definitely. slowly, but it is.
her: many people don't stay long enough to notice it.
me: do you get stuck with the same piece every day?
her: no. we rotate. i get this one on fridays
me: so you know this show really well. which piece is your favorite?
her: this one
me [excited]: why!?!
her: i just love how it changes. everyone should have one of these in their living room - to just sit and chill and listen to music with
me: so does it always stay in this colorway - different shades of white/blue?
her: oh no.
me: so what's your favorite color it turns then?
her: this red. this really crazy red. and then it's a pretty orange after. it's so cool. [she's gesticulating. she clearly really likes it].
me: how long does it take to get through the whole cycle?
her: i think about 2 hours
me: so you never know when it's going to be red?
her: not really. it just shows up.

by this time i'm wildly grinning. i mean isn't this the best testament to art? here's a woman who has a job that could in many ways be called boring. in reality - she probably knows the show better than anyone else. even turrell. i doubt he sits with his work week after week, watching it for 8 hours a day. and she loves it. clearly. she GETS it. more than me. more than art historians. more than most. i'm so excited that she's excited. she pulls an earbud from her ear and admits that she listens to music while she works. we continue:

me: so - do you know how the piece was constructed?
her: sort of - it's a cut out in the wall
me: yeah - i get that - and there's a scrim of some sort right?
her: yea.
me: but the shape - the way the light comes out of it - it's not just a hole...
she looks around. the space is empty.
she turns to me and bri.
she walks up to the front.
she waves us up. she says stick your hand/head in. look at it.
we are speechless. we've been told all day - stay 5 feet away.
we peer in. after the immediate hole there's a slope. the slope is key and then 2 feet? [???? maybe 3???? you can't tell - the light is sooo eerie] there's the scrim. the lights are behind it - doing their thing.

we then slink away.
given such a gift.
such a gift.
i bet turrell would want to kill us.
but it only makes me love it more.

we sit there. maybe it's now been 30-40 minutes total. it's still shifting. but we have the whole other 1/2 of the show to see.
her: you get to go in a room that's like this in the next half. it's so cool
[the room i described above].
us: we really should go.
me: sad we don't get to see the red. but THANK YOU. thank you so much for talking to us. and for sharing your story.
bri introduces herself [smart lady]. i do to.
matricia shakes our hands. big smiles all around.
i feel more enthused than ever about the show.

we move onto the next piece. where you walk down a dark hallway and enter a very dark room - with a purple light piece 20+ feet away from you. we sit in the dark. pretty much unbelieving of what just happened.

about 5 minutes into this one - you have to let your eyes adjust to this kind of piece - we see a flashlight in the space. we hear a whisper: hey! hey! are you guys in here? you have to come see - it's turning red ! it's turning red !

we RUN out. we stand with matricia in front of the piece as it turns red. really intense red. you can feel it in your head. your brain hurts. i notice that the lights that were white are now green. DUH. they have absorbed all the red in the room and emit green - red's compliment. i'm excited now. it's a living color theory experiment. i turn to matricia.

me: hey hey - do you see the lights - the ones on the side?
m: yea - they are green !
me: yeah ! they are. isn't that cool?
m: i never noticed that before!
me: really?!
m: no.
me: do you know why they are green?
m: no. why?
me: green is the opposite of red on the color wheel. those are white lights, right? so all the red is being absorbed and all we see is green.
m: that is SO cool !!
she then turns to another viewer and tells them.

i smile.

i couldn't have created a better scenario if i tried. this is when truth is most certainly better than fiction. there's no way i could have imagined this happening. no. absolute. way. but it did. and i have a witness [and now we are forever linked by turrell].

i had one of those rare completely engulfing practically perfect art experiences.
thank you art gods.
thank you turrell.
thank you bri.
thank you matricia.


Tracy Bartley said…
I so love everything about this post. Everything. xo
Anonymous said…
And THANK YOU, Lisa, for sharing the magic with us!

Wow...simply WOW. NO WONDER you mentioned that your 'trip to LA was good!' More like a once in a lifetime, eh?!? For all three of you....
Heather said…
Spectacular! This actually brought tears to my eyes. Sp perfectly described.

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