James Turrell’s latest light work is nothing less than a visual and spacial metamorphosis of the iconic spiral of the Guggenheim into a living set of Space Odyssey 2001 where the viewer is transcended up to the ovals above.
By blending the space into the art by his use of light, James Turrell (1943-present) equally absorbs the viewer, placing us immediately into the center of the installation. Aten Reign (2013) was especially designed for the rotunda of the Guggenheim. The inner space has been closed from the outer space by a soft white fabric along the full length of the spiraling gallery. The inner space has been carefully recreated and molded into a evenly shaped cone, while the original spiral effect of line and circle, has been projected onto the ceiling and flattened into a set of embedded oval hues. Around this inner cave of false shadows, runs the original spiral designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, but it has now become an empty row, a gallery of space itself, which has been revealed in its bare original beauty, and walking through it, gives you the feeling of walking through the exoskeleton of both Turrell’s and Wright’s parallel universes.
The title ‘Aten Reign’ refers to Aten, the sun symbol that is the disk shape associated with the Egyptian sun god Ra. Ra was considered to possess creative power as the source of life in ancient Egypt, and it is literally fitting to see how Turrell’s has incorporated it into the architectural design based on the golden ratio.
The installation is made of five consecutive cones that interlock and are suspended from an installation 25 feet above the viewer. The layers of cones form chambers that stream the daylight downward and are attached to a construction that itself is hidden from the gallery by a wall of white fabric, isolating the light both inside as outside. The cones hang in mid-air and each are lined with more than a thousand computer-controlled LED fixtures that create five elliptical rings of colored light that gradually shift in light frequency at such a slow pace that you cannot see the change actually taking place but in jumps of consciousness. Only once color has changed already at a certain step, the brain ‘suddenly’ becomes aware of the color change that has taken place. The brain plays constant catch-up with the actual color changes taking place under its very own eyes, causing the hallucinating Ganzfeld effect.
The light and space that form the material of Turrell’s work, generate an effective meditative effect on the viewer. Turrell, who studied psychology and mathematics as an undergrad, has explored this so-called Ganzfeld effect throughout his oeuvre. This neural effect in response to a uniform impression, causes an emotional state that is uniquely able to connect the spectacle and the spectator. The oceanic feeling of primal unity can be witnessed in the dozens of people that lay spread across the circular bed in the center below the layers of luminous disks, and stare upward at the hovering lights above. The colorful skylights above hang in the space as their light frequency gradually changes color, transforming the perception and sentiment of the space in which the viewer is present.
Turrell grew up in a Quaker family and his grandmother once told him that going to a Quaker meeting was like ‘going to meet the light,’ where people meet in contemplation and silent prayer. It is perhaps not a complete coincidence that the artist nowadays, in the latter phase of his life, has cultivated a long, white beard and that ‘Aten Reign’ is part of a trinity of three major retrospective exhibitions this summer, highlighting the passion of the artist for light and space since the 1960s.
Three major exhibitions with Turrell’s work in 2013:
1. New York, NY: Guggenheim – On View (includes video)
2. Los Angeles, CA: LACMA – James Turrell’s Perceptual Cell and Dark Matters
3. Houston, TX: MFH – The Light Inside (includes video)
Critical Review at the Gallerist