Art: A Less Than Spiritual Experience

Having never attended a public lecture at the National Gallery of Australia, I expected great things from the “Art as a Spiritual Experience” talk, a part of the James Turrell Exhibition. The lecture was given by Professor David Tacey, an expert on psychoanalysis and spirituality. Surely a good start to a powerful lecture? Unfortunately not. Although Professor Tacey began his lecture with the admission that he has very little knowledge of art history or art theory, I hoped that his lecture would be focused on the psychoanalytic interpretation of Turrell’s art, which would have been undeniably fascinating. Instead, his lecture revolved around Turrell’s Quaker faith and its centrality to his work.

Tacey saw the link between the Quaker faith and Turrell’s work as being focused on the inability to ever gain a true understanding of God. Turrell’s work was, according to Tacey, completely dedicated to the mystical and spiritual obscurity of God, which Turrell expresses through his use of light. While this topic was interesting, it became literally so boring after at least a solid 40 minutes of elaboration.

Although this interpretation was new to me, and an understanding of Turrell’s religious beliefs changed my own views on his work, the lecture was undeniably basic. It was like being back at a lecture in Manning Clarke. For non-students, tickets are about $25 – a ridiculously high price if the quality of lectures is at this level – and, depressingly, this doesn’t even include biscuits or tea and coffee (students Canberra-wide were unimpressed). However, the lecture theatre was still packed, suggesting that the NGA’s other public talks are much better.

There were, thankfully, some positive aspects to the evening. Professor Tacey did give a comprehensive preview on the works of Turrell, even if his explanation of Turrell’s Quaker faith was patchy at best. Okay, well maybe there really aren’t too many good things to say… but the James Turrell exhibition at the NGA is amazing, and I do believe everyone should attend this unique exhibition while it is in Canberra.