American mythical artist, James Turrell conceives, since the years 1960, a monumental work which uses, creates, raises the relation between the perception, the light, the color and the space. Interview with Sophie Lévy, director of the Musée d’Arts in Nantes and curator of the exhibition “James Turrell. It becomes your experience.

By Fanny Revault

How did James Turrell begin to design these spaces of light?

James Turrell began by designing a rather sculptural light projections in space. Then, he used the spaces as places of expression of light where the spectator enters the darkness and sees cut out a screen of which he does not see the light source. There was a space of this type, “Cherry”, in the exhibition “James Turrell. It becomes your experience “at the art museum of Nantes in the summer of 2018. The light was so tiny that, at first, you see nothing and little by little, the light arrives and the screen appears as a monochrome, a flat, uniform surface that changes. And as and when you stay in space, it appears as an abyss, a moving background whose limits we do not perceive. It was actually their perception that moved almost giving the impression of a kinetic work.

James Turrell later developed this method of perception in his Skyspaces, installations this time open to the sky through a cutout?

Absolutely. At one point, he realized that the ultimate light production space was the sky itself. And that it was enough that it reverses a little its device, and instead of putting it vertically and put it horizontally, to get to make effects exactly identical but in a different dimension. There is a logical progression in his thought. First, it makes projections that create virtual volumes. Then, the light extends to all the spaces where the spectator is. Then the light comes from a second space, a cutout like a frame. And finally, Skyspace becomes the same system except that the light production chamber is the whole sky.

What was your experience of a Skyspace?

I have a very memorable memory of my first visit to a Skyspace. It was in New York at PS1, the MOMA’s annex dedicated to contemporary art projects. This installation named “Meeting” could only be visited one hour at dusk. This view of the sky, through a frame, like a painting, looked down at a light that was constantly changing. It’s amazing as an experience. This beauty, like all of Turrell’s work, is quite difficult to describe.

The Roden Crater, an extinct volcano crater located in Arizona that he gradually transforms into observation rooms, open on specific portions of the sky, is it his emblematic work?

Indeed, the Roden Crater is his “impossible” masterpiece that will most likely remain unfinished. He pushes his logic to the end. Lying at the bottom of the crater, you find yourself in an incredible, almost natural skyspace; the hollow is the room of perception, the whole sky which is the space of production of the light and the edge of the crater which plays the role of the delimitation of the frame. As time has gone by, he has considerably complicated this project by creating new spaces, successive rooms conceived as a kind of initiatory journey. And all this, from a volcano crater located in the Arizona desert that can only be reached by private plane. By complicating this monumental installation, it is as if, in a way, he did not wish to complete it.

According to you, where does this fascination for space come from?

There are different explanations. He himself has evolved in his manner in approaching them. James Turrell started from a very minimalist relationship to space and light. In my opinion, it is the most interesting analysis of his production that is almost a mental work: how can one go to a kind of absolute of a work of art by approaching almost nothing and at the same time approaching a sort of absolute of perception? We have joined one of the fundamentals of art, which is a sort of agreement between a mental abstraction and a minimal and refined form. It simplifies this relationship to the world.

Then, minimalism appeared in the United States on the East Coast in the 60s. The works of Flavin, Judd, etc. had a strong place in the current art. James Turrell was in California. And artists from the West Coast have tried to bring this art to a different, broader and perhaps more related to the issues of nature, the environment, the earth and the sky. Unlike the New York school which was more in industrial stakes. Flavin shows the neon tube, Judd, the perfect metal cubes. Turrell tries, on the contrary, to erase all the mechanics of the construction, all traces of his action like a magician.

James Turrell was also a great connoisseur of Antoine de Saint Exupéry and aviation enthusiast. Would these flying experiences have inspired him?

Indeed, he had his pilot diploma quite young. This is probably what led him to work on the sky and its variations. When you are in a cockpit, there are times when the sky has no limit, you do not know if it is hollow, concave or convex. There is such quality in the heavenly light that we lose all our bearings. Flying was probably his source of inspiration and the sky, his studio.

But there were other explanations a little more mystical. Much thought has been given to the mystical dimension of his Quaker religious education, giving way to silence, meditation and the reception of light.

He also explained that he did not have television at home and that his only perception of TV was a reflection of the screen of his neighbors he was looking through the window. And he became fascinated by these lighting effects of the cathode ray tube without seeing exactly what produced light. He thus perceives a magical and mysterious dimension in the presence of a television because of his deliberately archaic education on new technologies.

Conceiving installations in correlation with the light of the stars, James Turrell was also marked by astronomy?

Yes and no. Because his beginnings are mostly marked by the visual arts and the psychology of perception he has studied. With this discipline, he understood that the lack of perception of space could have quite fascinating effects on the state of a human being.

As his fame grew, he had an increasingly mystical and romantic discourse on the role of the artist as a messenger of the infinitely small to the infinitely large having a perception, a particular acuteness on the world and an ability to transmit. So, astronomy is indeed part of the interpretations, the arguments that he could advance in his last interviews, which I find, moreover, less interesting and those of the 60s-70s.

James Turrell studied the psychology of perception. According to you, how does he introduce this psychology into the perception of art?

By manipulating the natural light of the sky and artificial in spaces, he creates installations that upset the markers of the spectator by immersing him in the darkness. In short, it intensifies the experience of light by isolating it and obscuring any other light. The only radiation emitted by the sky, or by the screen in its closed spaces, makes the spectator experience the physics of changing light.

Moreover, he wants to lose the spatio-temporal landmarks of the viewer. As when we look at the bottom of the sky, we have no landmarks, there is no beginning and end, it is infinite. In the same way, the shapes of the interior of the volume are erased so that the viewer has the feeling of not knowing where he is. In the case of its closed installations, it regulates the intensity of light in a very precise way so that the magic emanating from the light works perfectly.

He is a conjurer, that is to say he masters the codes of a visual illusion, knows the mechanics of the visible. As much as we know, every time we are placed in Turrell’s work, magic is reproduced, and we look at it each time differently.

In what context has the psychology of perception developed?

The psychology of perception developed in a cold war context when scientific programs came closer to artistic programs. James Turrell is himself part of a scientific program that reflects on the question of perception. Scientists have realized that this psychology can have fascinating effects on humans or, on the contrary, effects of psychic unreason. There is American research that we do not know how far they went and what they served. This knowledge could be used as a means of torture. It can deeply destruct the ability of humans to identify and develop their consciousness if they no longer have a sense of space and time for a very long time. This question of context is interesting and deserves to be deepened …

How does James Turrell experience light, time passing?

James Turrell wants to have a perception of light. His first articles are a little complicated because he said there was a difference between volume and light. Volume is architecture and light is like an impalpable material that makes the existence of space possible. In short, he does his best to detail the fundamental elements of perception: time, space, light and self. It is therefore phenomenology. The world comes from a number of brain functions that organize our perception. I can not say that the world is entirely in me, nor outside of me, it is in between. In the same way that art is between the two: between the world and me. And when orchestrated by James Turrell, everything becomes crystal clear … He recreates everything, even the sky. Because if Turrell did not put in place the conditions to show us, the perception of the sky would be less strong. Now, I happen to enter an Italian palace patio, and think of this artist. Like an inversion, we start looking for Skypaces in everyday life.

He uses the light of the sky as a material …

Yes, he says: “I use light as a material to work the medium of perception, basically the work really has no object because perception is the object.”. This quote is a very good definition of his work. He uses light as a technical material and the work does not lie in the light itself and not in the frame. It is the viewer himself who is the creator of the work. He makes you the work.

James Turrell was inspired by the painters of the light … wishing to go beyond this simple representation of the light to feel and really show it?

Exactly, he talks about these influences in painting, even if it’s very different. Painters of light, like Turner or Monet and other Impressionists, interpret or attempt to account for their experience of light at a given time on a canvas. There is a very immersive dimension in Monet’s painting with his Water Lilies. It has been rightly said that it may have been a forerunner of American painting in the 1960s, or the father of American abstract expressionism. Turrell, meanwhile, does not reproduce the light, he orchestrates a real experience of light.

Can we say that James Turrell seeks to unite the opposites: the infinite and the finite, the interiority and the spatiality, the spiritual and the material?

Between the infinite and the finite, yes. There is always, in his works, an opposition between you and the space you are looking at, of which you are not of the same essence. This delimitation between the two is very important to him. There are two states, and two places; the place of your perception is not the place where the light is; the sky or the screen. So there is a kind of dialectical tension.

In the Cherry work at the Nantes museum, there was not absolute darkness because there were two small spots set very low but which allowed, when one stayed long enough (at least 10 minutes), to perceive the ‘artwork. Here again the question of time is very important, and there is the idea that the work is worthy. So the geometric, finite and structured black cubic perception space completely and voluntarily opposes this undefined bright and abyssal space that you are looking at. In the same way that the sky is an infinite and luminous contemplative space. He brings the elements of the universe into an intimate space. And in between, the setting is essential. And I think that the space in which we are placed is a kind of expression of us. We ourselves are the black box that has an opening on the outside by a square. Sometimes we dream of an unknown place that strangely familiar to us. This structured place is an expression of oneself. So, indeed, we find a contrast between two things: between us, our structured interiority and another unlimited space, an extended spatiality. On the other hand, there is no need for a spiritual presence in the sky for the sky to have a fascination effect. I think we already have in us the second space of light because otherwise we would not have access to it.

What is the strength of James Turrell?

The strength of James Turrell’s message is to teach us how to perceive works of art, once and for all! This does not correspond to the totality of works of art that are symbolic, very rich in meaning and interpretation. But I think that if we understand a work of this artist, there will be many works that we can understand later. Because we touch a kind of absolute of what could be a work of art, ie a space, a work and the miracle is renewed each time. This absence of lassitude is characteristic of art. In art, you never really have access to the object of your desire. In his installations, you are in it. And as soon as it is extinguished, the desire can be reborn and you will relive it differently. In a way, it is, in my opinion, a b-ba of a work of art. I think there is a connection between meditation and the perception of his works of art. We must be very present to what is happening. Which does not mean being self-centered or withdrawn into oneself and one’s body but on the contrary simply being there to what is happening and the work happening to you.