We Are Light-Eaters: The Unearthly Art of James Turrell

The last time James Turrell staged a major installation in a New York museum, lawsuits ensued: two visitors, who ostensibly didn’t realize what they were in for, sued Turrell after they became disoriented and fell inside of an installation in 1980. Thankfully, that hasn't stopped Turrell manipulating our senses—in fact, this month, he'll unveil what critics are calling one of the most daring installations ever attempted.

If you’re an American reader, odds are pretty good that you live within driving distance of a museum showing one of Turrell’s pieces right now. Last month, the 70-year-old artist opened a major show in Los Angeles, as well as one in Houston. His New York exhibit, which will blanket the circular Guggenheim space in luminous fabric, opens in less than a week. That’s a grand total of 92,000 square feet of exhibition space, according to The New York Times Magazine, which ran a long and fascinating profile on Turrell this weekend.

We Are Light-Eaters: The Unearthly Art of James Turrell

Turrell's Rice University pavilion, Twilight Epiphany, created in 2012.

It’s hard to describe Turrell’s work without resorting to cliche—we’re hampered by words, in this case, when his work should experienced without them. His medium is always light—and the sky it passes through—but the mode of delivery varies. He has built dozens of “Skyspaces,” simple rooms that frame the sky using square- or ellipse-shaped holes carved in their ceilings.

He also frequently branches out into architecture, with projects like his new pavilion at Rice University, a two-story space that uses subtle LEDs to manipulate the experience of the sky above a performance space. “I feel that I want to use light as this wonderful and magic elixir that we drink as Vitamin D through the skin,” he told Interview Magazine in 2009. “And I mean, we are literally light-eaters.”

We Are Light-Eaters: The Unearthly Art of James Turrell

A Perceptual Cell, seen here at the Gagosian Gallery, in 2010.

Turrell’s work grows out of the Light and Space movement of the 1960s, which was concerned with manipulating perception. But unlike many of his contemporaries, he references diverse scientific and mathematical sources, ranging from Riemannian geometry—which deals with the curve of the earth—to Ganzfeld experiments, in which a person’s perception of space is manipulated by creating a space of one single, static color (the term is often used describe snow blindness).

In his assaultive “perceptual cells,” visitors have to sign a form saying they have insurance, and that they won’t sue in the case of “serious injury, including… partial or total disability, paralysis, death, and/or severe social and economic losses.” You lay on an MIR-like bed, inside of a spherical structure, where your vision is severely manipulated using extreme colors. Some compare it to being stoned—others argue that the cells are "invasive."

We Are Light-Eaters: The Unearthly Art of James Turrell

The Roden Crater, in Arizona, which has been under construction for nearly 30 years. First image via.

Turrell’s masterwork is a 400,000-year-old volcanic crater in the Arizona desert, which he purchased in 1979. There, he has spent the past 25 years carving a network of rooms and tunnels inside of the crater, which is (somewhat controversially) long overdue to open. Curator Michael Govan told the NYT that Roden is “as important as any artwork ever made,” saying, “I know I’m going out on a limb here a little bit, but I think it’s one of the most ambitious artworks ever attempted by a single human being.” Turrell, for his part, recently described his intentions for Roden in an excellent interview (including rare footage of Roden) with LACMA, saying, “my desire is to bring astronomical events and objects down into your personal, lived-in space.”

We’ll be reporting back from Turrell’s piece in New York after we see it on Thursday. But for now, check out a series of images from his back catalog, below, or read The New York Times story here. Or, even better, check it out the three-part retrospective for yourself if you’re in New York, Houston, or LA this summer.

We Are Light-Eaters: The Unearthly Art of James Turrell

We Are Light-Eaters: The Unearthly Art of James Turrell

Turrell's Rice University pavilion, Twilight Epiphany, created in 2012.

We Are Light-Eaters: The Unearthly Art of James Turrell

Afrum (White), 1966, at LACMA.

We Are Light-Eaters: The Unearthly Art of James Turrell

The Roden Crater, seen from above.

We Are Light-Eaters: The Unearthly Art of James Turrell

We Are Light-Eaters: The Unearthly Art of James Turrell

Turrell's installation at the Gagosian Gallery, London 2010.

We Are Light-Eaters: The Unearthly Art of James Turrell

We Are Light-Eaters: The Unearthly Art of James Turrell

The Wolfsburg Project, installed in Wolfsburg, Germany, in 2009.

We Are Light-Eaters: The Unearthly Art of James Turrell

We Are Light-Eaters: The Unearthly Art of James Turrell

Speculative rendering showing what the Guggenheim installation may look like.

James Turrell: The Light Inside from Museum of Fine Arts, Houston on Vimeo.