Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Taken: James Turrell

On Friday I had the pleasure of going to the MoMa with my coworker Patrice. They were having a members-only party for the opening of Friedlander’s work, and I was the “+1” for the night. Oddly enough, I’m not going to talk about anything I saw there, but it did get me thinking. One of the exhibits included an artist named Olafur Eliasson that works with light and reflection; and, while the experience was most definitely appreciated, in my opinion it paled in comparison to another artist’s work.

The first year I went to Pilchuck to spin fire for a few weeks, I went on a short field trip into Seattle. In addition to a few tours of some local hot shops, we went to the Seattle Art Museum. There I got to experience some of James Turrell’s work. Now I’ll be the first to admit that I sometimes fly through museums too fast. But. Not this time.

People. The man doesn’t create art, he puts quotation marks around time and space. Here’s what he has to say about his work:

“First, I am dealing with no object. Perception is the object. Secondly, I am dealing with no image, because I want to avoid associative, symbolic thought. Thirdly, I am dealing with no focus or particular place to look. With no object, no image and no focus, what are you looking at? You are looking at you looking.”
—James Turrell

Instead of trying to explain what this means, I’m just going to share my own experience, all story-time-like:

I walked into the room and saw a projected rectangle of light on one of the walls. Certainly, it’s beautiful, but whatevs. It’s just another Modern artist trying to prove he doesn’t need to use oil paint. OK, maybe it is beautiful. I’ll give it a moment.

So I sat down across the room from the light and looked at it for a while. It was sort of dark in the room and my eyes needed to adjust to the balance of tones. Then I noticed the shoes sitting on the floor next to the projection. Wtf? Who took off their shoes? Or is that some sort of symbolic artistic turd?

Then, THEN! I saw what was truly happening. There were PEOPLE moving around inside that stupid projection of light. Real ones! WHAT WAS GOING ON HERE? ARGH!

So I went right up to the thing and looked real close. I was having one of those depth perception issues: is there a wall there? Embarrassed as I was, I decided to go for it: I slowly reached out my arm to touch the light (making sure there were no red coats around to yell at me)….and…NOTHING! no wall! It was a freaking ROOM filled with pure, colored light.

And at that very moment someone stepped out of what I thought had been the wall and sat down next to me to put her shoes back on. Freaking art. Totally had me. And now, it totally had me.

It turns out good ‘ole James had been toying with me (and everyone else) all along. I fell right into his trap. The man had manipulated the light and space in the room to amplify my own perception of it. I’m not looking at anything, but what I thought I saw isn’t really there. That velvety blue square of radiant color hovering on the wall is actually a portal into a deep depression in the space. He’s managed to lull me into a state of self-reflexivity. The damned quote made sense all of a sudden: I was seeing myself seeing.

What else could I do but step into the light?

What had first appeared to be a floating, luminous plane without surface or depth, I was now stepping through. I was standing in a room contemplating the space that I was still convinced didn’t really exist. I was prelingual.

Now that I’ve gone all art-geek on you, I have to pull myself out of the reverie. I haven’t relayed this story to pull it around to advertising. I don’t want to make it into some metaphor for lulling your target audience into a false sense of comfort and product-love. It has nothing to do with that. I just loved the artwork.

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