Light affects us physically, psychologically, profoundly. It can create a space that’s pleasantly stimulating or oppressively harsh. It can add depth, introduce shadows, reinterpret colours. It can offer you a clear direction, or upset all of your senses. For James Turrell, light is a life-long engagement, creating spaces and sensory experiences that confound our bodies and astound our minds.

James Turrell: A Retrospective at the National Gallery of Australia is a complex experience. During my hours there I move slowly, I stand still, I explore tentatively with outstretched fingers, I lay down, I dance. The NGA’s retrospective includes works from each decade of Turrell’s artistic development, from still images to leaping holograms to installations in large rooms. An advancement on LACMA’s exhibition in a number of ways including technically, the retrospective also presents many works that are part of the NGA’s own collection, thanks to foresightful acquisitions by former Director, Ron Radford AM. Experiencing them all within the one curation generates a strong impression of the artist’s discipline and expertise.

The Ganzfeld: Virtuality Squared distributes that impression all over the body. A space curved, fogged and brilliantly lit in a colourscape cycle of several minutes’ duration, its effect on the body is an awkwardly blissful discombobulation. In crinkly disposable slippers my feet move in hesitant steps, and my eyes once adjusted to the light still can’t work out where it’s coming from nor where the room’s outer limits lie.

An exploration of some of the artist’s historical development is presented before the next immersion, and I experience for the first time some images from his 1960s Mendota Block work, as well as some startling holograms. Like Gordon Matta-Clark and Ian Strange after him, Turrell’s experimentation involved slicing through building walls, making new shapes for new light with mathematical precision. This was not a trial-and-error experimentation, but rather, an exploration of form within fixed constraints and based on expert knowledge. Turrell’s work is informed by intensive studies in mathematics and perceptual psychology, with a focus on synaesthesia, the study and the phenomenon of involuntary sensory convergence. A couple of the Mendota Block works are presented as rooms here: stark contrasts in projected light; shapes corresponding with spot-lit outlines cut from walls and corners; corner projections confusing the senses again with their finite extension of light. As with the Ganzfeld, my eyes see depth and sense space, and too often I reach forward only to experience wall – or air where I perceive wall.

An unexpected delight follows: a set of holograms, untitled, made across 2006-2008, hung in series along a wall, encouraging my synaesthetic tendencies by compelling me to walk along their series at different paces and intervals. Shapes leap out at me like sudden flares from a dark sun. I stop, I choose one, I lean forward gingerly as though the flame could touch me. I imagine the feather-light sensation on the tip of my nose, so convinced have I become as to its palpable form. I stand facing the work, legs astride, finding a point of balance, and then I move from side to side to appreciate the coloured forms in movement. The light is dancing. I am dancing.

The light of dawn, the light of dusk, the light of clarity, the light of interrogation, the light of wisdom: as a Quaker, pilot, prisoner, scholar and artist, Turrell has known them all – and many more. Imprisoned for coaching others on dodging the draft, I learn in a talk the following day that Turrell had conspired with a fellow prisoner to keep being returned to solitary confinement by starting fights with one another. The dreadful room was intended as a punishment, but for Turrell it punctuated his year behind bars with the constructive experience of sensory deprivation, save for a bare few shafts of light. When he did eventually serve in Vietnam’s special operations, he developed a love for flying that stays with him, offering yet another experience of intensive sensory focus at great height.

The Space Division Piece, Orca, confused me. Its spotlit peripherals demanded to be perceived in a sweet spot of specific location that my body didn’t find in time. I was also distracted by new information being discussed about the work. A note of advice for your visit: If it’s the quieter, religious experience you’re after, resist the temptation to animate one of the expert NGA staff in conversation. Experience the work first, and then step out of the space to discuss it. You’ll be glad you did – and so will your fellow travellers.

I don’t have the opportunity to experience the Perceptual Cell: Bindu Shards – thankfully though, as a work that has now entered the NGA’s collection, one day I will likely read through its risk assessment and compare its abstract checklist with my own little grey cells’ capabilities. However, I find I very much enjoy Magnatron: Bullwinkle, a work of cathode ray tube light that replicates the qualities emitted by that old cartoon favourite. Today’s light sources in the domestic space are multiple, and I am a big fan of f.lux’s modifications to match the time of day to my screen work. Television was never as forgiving.

Easily my favourite is the Wedgework: After Green. Here I experience with my entire body the indefinite extension of space, and I long to stay and keep exploring – because with each passing minute, my perception deepens considerably. Unlike the Shallow Space Construction Raemar, the most static of the room pieces, the Wedgework is more than one room in extension as well as in actuality, with light framing more than one perspective and more than one angle. On the following day (and with thanks to a serendipitous taxi share), a talk by Richard Cale, Director of the exhibition’s lighting design, would satisfy my technical curiosity about so many of the works’ hidden magic, as well as opening my mind to many more questions. Cale recommends taking at least eight minutes for the rods to disengage and the cones to control the retina’s experience, then sitting for around six minutes, and then walking towards the work. I move about, mindful of my instincts and their tentative responses to my senses. Soon there is nothing but the work, and I am but a sensorium.

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Cale describes Turrell as a man who is “humble, intelligent, an enigma… he just loves his life right now.” It’s an attractive description and one which is borne out by the exhibition’s documentary, where the artist describes his monumental work Roden Crater. Developed since 1974, this audacious project evokes the massive works of the ancients whose mathematical precision has awed scholars for millennia. Astronomy, mythology, monumentalism: despite its apparent simplicity, it takes great audacity to engage eloquently with light. As a medium, it demands a committed discipline, a vast scale, yet a subtle approach. Turrell’s dedication makes possible a set of experiences that are entirely new, and as an artist, there is no more meaningful aim.

As a final experience I step out into the forecourt and follow the path down past landscaping and water and into one of Turrell’s monuments to the sky. The grasses giving shape to the Skypsace have grown since my last visit, further connecting it with the land so heavily disguised by the series of concrete-plinthed cultural monoliths that make up that Canberra neighbourhood. Once inside I sit with my friends, my eyes following the curves of the room around and across and up. I lie down, resetting the locus of my peripheral vision to take in only the framed sky. Clouds move slowly.



IMAGE: Michael Govan (Director, LACMA): You once said your airplane was your studio. James Turrell: Yes. We were talking about this line that came down from the contrail. Also what happens flying toward a sunrise or sunset or the other way, when you see the earth’s shadow rise opposite the sunset. I’ve always felt that night doesn’t fall; night rises. View from within Turrell’s cockpit on a Vietnam secret ops tour, captured during a presentation by Richard Cale, Director, Xenian (architectural lighting designers of the NGA’s exhibition), Canberra, 1 March 2015. Interview cited from the exhibition catalogue. ABOVE Slideshow images of Skyspace; BELOW: Cards from the NGA KIDS kit; photography by Esther Anatolitis.

Turrell kids' kit crop

Turrell’s 350th exhibition James Turrell: A Retrospective is at the National Gallery of Australia 13 December 2014 – 8 June 2015. Photography within the exhibition is not permitted.