James Turrell is a master of light, colour and space. His work mesmerises and instils a sense of wonder along with, at times, a sense of fear because you can’t always tell where the boundaries are in the light-space. It can be a perplexing experience. Standing in a room with a wall that was illuminated with a pinkish light, forever morphing in tone and intensity – I turned to complete darkness and realised I couldn’t see anything, nor could I understand where I was in space or have any sense of distance or depth. I could hear other people in the room but I couldn’t see them – not even as shadows or outlines. I stood stock still. The attendant had told me that there was a bench at the back of the room but I honestly couldn’t move because I didn’t know or understand where I was in relation to the back – or for that matter the side. So I ventured closer toward the light and put my hand out. There was a wall. And along this wall I slowly inched my way across until I felt the corner and the further wall. I can’t fully explain my sense of relief. At last I felt that I was grounded and could once again negotiate my way through space. But interestingly too, at this vantage point I watched the light move and change. The light began to look like a huge rectangle of pure colour and reminded me of Mark Rothko’s beautiful series of red paintings at the Tate and his Stations of the Cross. Around the edges of the form (though form is a concept that is very tenuously applied to Turrell’s work) was an outline of white – or the absence of colour. And what this does to your eyes – or vision – is amazing. Light is made up of colour and you see all these variations in that space. Finally I turned away and slowly made my way out, now feeling much more comfortable with the darkness. And of course the closer I got to the entrance/exit the less there was of a sense of absence of all light. To exit the room was another revelation/experience. Your eyes adjust and automatically produce the complementary colours – in this case green.
“My art is about your seeing, like the wordless thought that comes from looking into fire,” he says. He uses light as a material to influence and affect people’s perception, blurring the boundaries between flat and 3D geometries.“I put you in a situation where you feel the physicality of light,” says Turrell. “I am interested in this new landscape without horizon.”
The Retrospective at the National Gallery of Australia explores almost 50 years of Turrell’s work – projections, holograms, purpose-built installations, photographs and prints. Turrell’s works are amazing because they just keep on keeping on. They are an entirely solitary experience and one that at times made me smile with delight. How wonderful is light and colour and how blessed we are to be able to experience it in all its purity and glory.
To learn more about James Turrell, visit his Artsy page.