I’ve been all ’round this great big world, and I’ve seen all kinds of Turrells, so I couldn’t wait to get to the Hirshhorn last night for the sweetest Turrell lecture in the world.
What a horrible opening. Turrell and Richard Andrews, who’s now running Turrell’s foundation to complete the Roden Crater, spoke about the artist’s work last night, building up to several reveals about the progress and program of the Crater itself.
Encountering a Turrell work almost always involves a moment of realization–yes, someone did call it an “Aha! moment” last night–that the solid-looking object or space you’re looking at is, in fact, light. And the artist told a few funny stories–well-polished like a favorite stone he carried around in his pocket–about getting sued by a woman who leaned against the wall “that wasn’t there”; the reviewer who dismissed a piece at the Whitney as “uniformly painted”; and the viewer who leapt into that same piece because she thought it was solid, which makes no sense if you think about it, but it’s funny nonetheless, and we all laugh knowingly, which is the artist’s point.
I remember parking myself in MoMA’s A Frontal Passage when it was first installed, watching peoples’ reactions in the dark as they “got it.” Of course, more than once, what surprised them was that there was someone lurking in the dark space with them, and a couple of people freaked when I moved because they thought I was a sculpture. The Observer Effect apparently applies to Turrells as well.
I’ve always felt that there had to be more to Turrell’s work than the Aha moment, the threshold when you realize what you’re seeing–or to use the artist’s favored term, perceiving. Andrews told a story of turning a whole floor over to Turrell for what, he didn’t know, at the about-to-open CoCA in Seattle in 1982. A whole team of volunteers worked feverishly for weeks, not knowing what the piece would really be, and then Turrell hit the switch, and “Aha!” But of course, it was no surprise for Turrell himself; he had known what he was working toward. He’d seen it in his mind, and had only to construct it.
The artist himself was toggling, then, between an awareness of the tangible state of light and the awe of the moment or process of perceiving it. Even as he said outright, “I am not your guru,” the religious terminology peppering the discussion–koans, “taking it on faith,” enlightenment, revelation–seemed entirely appropriate.
When he got to the slides of his Quaker meetinghouses, Turrell recalled the instructions his conservative Quaker grandmother had for attending a silent, meditative service: “Go inside–meaning inside yourself–and greet the light.” It was a tall order for a fidgety little kid, but given how clearly it resonates with the experience of Turrell’s work, it clearly stuck. What else is clear, though is that Turrell sees a greeting for what it is–the beginning of a conversation. [images, greg.org, c2009 james turrell via moma]