Letting Turrell's Light Shine, Down There

For many, a major barrier between understanding and enjoying artwork is a lack of knowledge of the subject; basic inexperience. Think therefore of a more familiar and level playing field for experiencing the essential components of the artwork. Clever art stimulates the senses in novel ways, allowing the user to enter an alternative sensory-dimension where even numb feelings can be reawakened.
We decided to awaken ours…without pants.

Like many others, I initially laughed at the idea of attending James Turrell’s A Retrospective naked, mainly fearing running into people I knew and in the absence of the safety-nets of jeans, t-shirt and underpants. However, having accepted that Canberra is a small city and that our lives are inextricably linked, I resolved to shrug off my inhibitions and clothes to experience a very rare and personal viewing of Turrell’s work.

Walking into the National Gallery I was confronted by a long line (tolerable) and to my horror, work colleagues (mortifying), including a well-known and frequently pants-less student politician. Yet the shock wore off within seconds as we chatted and acknowledged that we knew what we’d signed up for.
The Gallery staff informed us of what to expect, the required courtesies: no touching people without permission, no touching the exhibits whatsoever. Then the clothes came off and were stored in large, name-labelled bags…a blessed assurance just in case disaster struck and we were forced to flee in the buff.

Many of us reached for a glass of water, while others immediately started conversing. The awkwardness never had time to settle in as we were whisked away to the exhibition halls.
Our guide, Stuart Ringholt, was marvellous throughout the entire affair and was himself fully nude.
He explained how the body naturally processes and responds to light, gave the history of Turrell’s work and outlined how the works affect our senses.

The first exhibit featured a projection of a cube in a darkened room, giving a 3D appearance to the 2 dimensional structures. We proceeded to the second room which featured another illuminated cube…but I won’t give away the surprise as there is optical trickery at play!
This trend in visual and spatial deception continued throughout the exhibits, including the fantastic Virtuality squared’ 2014 ‘Ganzfeld’: built space. Though tempted, we didn’t get too close to some exhibits for fear of being tackled below the imaginary beltline by security.
At the end of the experience we returned to the starting point for refreshments, conversation and even some personal photos, while other attendees exchanged contacts for future events, clothed or not.
Not knowing where to put one’s hands was the only real awkward part of the night.

The interrogations I’ve since received about my attendance have unfortunately focused on public nudity as a sexual experience. I can assure you it’s not! Many people just like being naked and interacting with others in a casual, respectful manner. The erotic alternative would likely involve consent, intimacy, and mutual interest; in a private setting and with fewer people, one would hope.
Questions about body image also arose. Were people obese, old, creepy, hot, friendly, fit, student, staff, etc.?
Probably all of the above, but simply human, really. We all accepted our flaws and chose to focus on the artwork and each other’s company.
It’s no secret that people run around the ANU naked – in halls of residence, across the ovals, wherever – and have fun doing it. There’s even talk of a non-sexual, sensual massage society in the works. At any length, Aussies have a global reputation of stripping down for fun (now banned at Machu Picchu)…so advance Australia fair, tanned or otherwise.

There’s a cheeky side to it of course, but on some level we all just want to be free to express ourselves without giving a shit.

James Turrell: A Retrospective runs until June 8th 2015 at the National Gallery of Australia

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