James Turrell and sacred architecture

James Turrell’s Aten Reign at the Guggen­heim

James Turrell’s instal­la­tions at the Guggen­heim left me in an altered state.  Using light as his pri­ma­ry medi­um, Turrell’s art requires slow look­ing and an active accep­tance of ambiguity—both con­ducive to enter­ing a kind of con­tem­pla­tive trance.

He’s pur­sued his sin­gu­lar work, from ear­ly exper­i­ments with slide pro­jec­tors in dark rooms to Roden Crater, his mon­u­men­tal envi­ron­men­tal work-in-progress in the Ari­zona desert. Since most of us won’t get to Roden Crater—though I sure would like to—this year’s major shows in Los Ange­les, New York and Hous­ton offer a rare chance to see some big work by Tur­rell. Aten Reign, his trans­for­ma­tion of the Guggenheim’s atri­um into a mas­sive cone of grad­u­al­ly shift­ing light and col­or, is the biggest tem­po­rary piece he’s cre­at­ed so far. The expe­ri­ence of it is qui­et and med­i­ta­tive, shared with a crowd of peo­ple, and last­ing about an hour. In oth­er words, it feels less like an art exhib­it than the sacred expe­ri­ence you might have with oth­ers in a tem­ple or church.

Tur­rell  has been open about this side of his work; he talks about light as rev­e­la­tion. A Quak­er, he has designed a space for a Quak­er meet­ing­house in Hous­ton that brings the sky direct­ly into the room, trans­lat­ing the Quak­er idea of find­ing the light with­in into out­ward form. But, giv­en the times we are liv­ing in—many cen­turies after the ages of great sacred architecture—the art world can be a more or less wel­com­ing alter­na­tive for such impuls­es. It’s less wel­com­ing to the extent that talk­ing about the con­nec­tion of light with spir­i­tu­al life can and does make some peo­ple uncom­fort­able (see Jed Perl’s piece in the New Repub­lic).

Tur­rell may be bet­ter under­stood in the con­text of his pre­de­ces­sors in sacred architecture—including those who cre­at­ed the stained-glass light shows inside the great Goth­ic cathe­drals. The Abbé Sug­er, who lived in the 12th cen­tu­ry, brought togeth­er glass artists from all over Europe to make the inno­v­a­tive stained glass win­dows of the Abbey Church of St. Denis, the first tru­ly Goth­ic build­ing. The Abbé devel­oped his own the­ol­o­gy of light, involv­ing three aspects: lux, lumen and illu­mi­na­tion. Lux is phys­i­cal light, from the sun or anoth­er source. Lumen is light trans­formed by sacred intention—having passed through the artist’s sparkling glass pan­els into a con­se­crat­ed space. And illu­mi­na­tion is that trans­formed light, stand­ing for a divine, invis­i­ble light, appre­hend­ed with­in the viewer’s heart. This way of explor­ing how phys­i­cal light can be trans­formed feels more use­ful to me in respond­ing to James Turrell’s work than lim­it­ing the con­ver­sa­tion to per­cep­tu­al psychology—how the mind works to inter­pret the tricky behav­ior of pho­tons.

Tur­rell knows all about the pho­tons, and how we per­ceive them—he’s a mage of light and its effects. His pre­de­ces­sor, Abbé Sug­er, reminds us not to get hung up on the photons—to be open to the illu­mi­na­tion with­in.