James Turrell is an American artist who specializes in instillation pieces exploring light and perception. The L.A. County Museum of Art is currently hosting an exhibit that chronologues his work since the 1960s. On a visit to California for family and college visits, we stopped off for a bit of culture. Both my brother and I have been doing lighting design for our respective theaters, so an exhibit based entirely on light intrigued us. We expected something very much along the line of the luminescent cube: interesting and creative, but easily explained by a quick sweep of the room for the hidden projector (located directly opposite the cube, about 10 feet up). We couldn’t have been more wrong.
To attempt to describe any of Turrell’s works would be doing them an incredible discredit. Each room holds some trick of light that makes you question everything you have ever seen. There is a room that is entirely dark. No light at all. I thought I knew what darkness was, this incomplete blackness that obscures the view but leaves your eyes capable of sight. Nope, not even close. When they say you can’t see your hand in front of your face, they mean it. It’s enough to make your head hurt, in the best possible way.
The experience left me with more than a little bit of doubt. Not only about what is or is not real, which is something I deal with on a regular basis, but about what things really matter. In making light the central focus of the art where it is normally used to compliment it, you begin to wonder what you should really be looking at. Should it be the statue in the middle of the room, the shadows that fall at its feet, or the lighting instruments themselves? Or is it only when you consider all of it together are you truly seeing the art? And if those elements which are so often overlooked are in fact so important, what have we been missing in the world outside of the gallery?