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James Turrell

a retrospective


13 December 2014 – 8 June 2015


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(Banner image): James Turrell Raemar pink white 1969
Shallow space construction: fluorescent light Kayne Griffin Corcoran, Los Angeles © James Turrell photograph
© Florian Holzherr

Light and perception

From his first built spaces at the Mendota Hotel, California, through to the elaborate construction phases at Roden Crater, Arizona, James Turrell's art is now found all around the globe. Within without 2010, the Skyspace at the National Gallery of Australia, has rapidly become one of its most treasured works, with visitors marvelling at the monumentally of the space and the daytime light effects, or scheduling an experience of the dawn and dusk cycles. The Gallery's summer show for 2014–15, James Turrell: a retrospective, places Within without in context, offering a survey of the American artist's oeuvre over almost five decades.

James Turrell Within without 2010 Skyspace: lighting installation, concrete and basalt stupa, water, earth, landscaping National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
© James Turrell, Photograph: John Gollings

Working with light and perception, Turrell makes site-specific, architectural projects, interior installations, projection works, holograms, drawings, prints, photographs and ceramic ware. The artist tells, as a child, of being captivated by the glow of a nightlight, of beginning to question whether darkness should be feared, of piercing holes in a blackout curtain to form a 'map' of the constellations above.

In the catalogue published for the retrospective, Turrell describes his desire to work with different types and qualities of light:

We eat light, drink it in through our skins. With a little more exposure to light, you feel part of things physically. I like the power of light and space physically because then you can order it materially. Seeing yourself seeing is a very sensuous act – there's a sweet deliciousness to feeling yourself see something.

After his first light sculptures using fire, Turrell began to construct light projections to form geometric shapes in existing spaces. Afrum (white) 1966 is related to his work at the Mendota Hotel, where he sealed off rooms and constructed walls and apertures to control the light from outside. Using a specialist projector, Turrell achieves a sense of solidity with a three-dimensional cube floating in a room.

Raemar pink white 1969, a Shallow space construction, likewise plays with our perceptions. Lit from behind, a wall hovers at the back of the space, and creates a fissure between the existing wall and the new one. While we may understand, rationally, how some of the effects are created, the view of a cube of light or a large, luminescent pink canvas levitating within a gallery is compelling. These are works that must be experienced in person: photographs capture little of the effect.

After green 1993 is a Wedgework, one of Turrell's most complex and intriguing group of works, which brings together fibre optic, LED and fluorescent lights to develop an immersive environment where the viewer becomes uncertain about the solidity of the surrounding walls.

The intensity of the red, the combination of colours, and the soft and hard edges in the darkened space makes for a disorientating and exquisitely beautiful installation: we are tempted to enter but know it might be dangerous. Indeed confusion about the 'scrim' of light in a Wedgework resulted in one of Turrell's most infamous incidents, when a viewer unsuccessfully sued the artist after falling and hurting herself when she leaned against a 'wall'. The Wedgework series is as bewildering and perplexing as Plato's cave, where people see only shadows of reality reflected on the wall in front of them, a metaphor for the illusion of reality.

During the 1980s and 90s Turrell also developed works that expose visitors to total darkness or isolate an individual within a contained environment. His complex Perceptual cell and large installations suffuse the viewer's space with light and colour – often with startling results – as Bindu shards 2010 demonstrates. From the outside a large fibreglass sphere, a carpeted ramp with railings, control panel and whited-coated attendants give the work a medical feel. Attendants prepare the participant: he or she must sign a waiver, relinquish belongings, be instructed in the use of a panic button, and choose the 'hard' or 'soft' cycle. Then he or she lies on the bed and is slid into the sphere. The intense, 15-minute cycle is likened to a three-dimensional, bodily kaleidoscope: high-speed flashing, ever-changing patterns of crystals, shards of light, stars, galaxies and nebulae.

Turrell causes us to question the nature of light and its origins. All of his work is exquisitely simple, and yet so complex, as the artist explained in Richard Andrews' The Wolfsburg Project, because light is very difficult to form, and 'you end up forming everything but it'. Most viewers are not surprised to discover that he studied mathematical and perceptual psychology; his background as a Quaker and training as a pilot also inform his practice. Turrell is best known for Roden Crater, his ongoing project on the edge of the Painted Desert near Flagstaff, Arizona, and the works he executes elsewhere are, in effect, the preparation for and culmination of his magnum opus.

James Turrell Afrum (white) 1966 Cross-corner projection:projected light, Los Angeles County Museum of Art © James Turrell photograph © Florian Holzherr

The National Gallery of Australia is the only gallery in the Southern Hemisphere for Turrell's retrospective. Following on from three highly successful shows throughout 2013 – at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the Guggenheim in New York – the National Gallery exhibition brings together works from LACMA's tour, with spectacular installations purpose-built for Canberra, new acquisitions, drawings, prints and photographs, and models and plans for Roden Crater. This is contemporary art like you've never seen before and promises an experience not to be missed.

Lucina Ward
Curator, International Painting and Sculpture