Review: Let the Light In

James Turrell, Shanta II (blue), 1970

James Turrell, Shanta II (blue), 1970

Usually we can expect the summer blockbuster at the National Gallery of Australia to consist of impressionist oil paintings and works by European masters of a bygone era. However the current retrospective of works by American artist James Turrell will make you feel very much alive. Manipulating light and perception as his medium, Turrell’s installations transcend this world and enter another realm of being where colour demands self inquiry. Curated by Lucina Ward, James Turrell: A Retrospective is a sumptuous sensory experience that instills meditation and introspection whilst also exhibiting how exhilarating art can be.

While other artists of the past like the Impressionists sought to represent light on canvas, Turrell has been literally creating art with light since the 1960s. This exhibition traces the spaces he has created which absorb and ‘drink in’ light, as well as several new site-specific creations Turrell has designed especially for Canberra.

One of the first installations I enter, Shanta II (Blue), immediately transports me to a dream-like consciousness.  Inside a dimly lit room is a floating blue trapezoid of electrifying intensity. I relax my eyes and the sharp contrast between the fluorescence of the shape melds with the shadows of the space and I find myself losing sight in the aperture of light. Lines become blurred and I want to crawl inside this floating reverie and live in an azure world of infinite imagination.

Turrell’s installations encourage contemplation. Born into a family of Quakers, spirituality is an inherent manifestation in both Turrell’s private and artistic pursuits. Within Without (2010) was installed in the NGA sculpture garden to facilitate specifically the act of meditation. One of 75 Skyspaces Turrell has built around the world, Within Without is an open ceiling stupa encompassed by water, where colour and aura transform depending on atmospheric conditions at dawn and dusk. Elemental forces combine with the emotional and psychological affinities one has with colour. The experience is an enjoyable way to sit and spend 45 minutes of your time – hot tip, it’s also a great date spot!

In contrast, Turrell’s Bindu Shards (2010), you might have heard it called the Perceptual Cell, is a work that only one individual can experience at a time. I was greeted by gallery attendants dressed in lab coats, equipped with clip boards and asked to sign a waiver before ascending the stairs to the cell, lying down on a bed, and being rolled in and completely immersed in cerulean light. I had been given an emergency stop button and the option of experiencing either a ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ version of the work. The ‘hard’ version I chose was a kaleidoscopic immersion where apparitions glowed and strobed, generating a ‘mental orgasm’.

The work of James Turrell illuminates how pleasurable perceptually altered sobriety can be. This is an exhibition that will leave you with a new appreciation for colour. You’ll have had a fun trip, in every sense of the word, to the National Gallery of Australia.

James Turrell: A Retrospective runs until June 8.
Student Tickets are $20. 39 + bf
Tickets that include the Perceptual cell are $45.88 + bf
Admission is cheaper on weekdays.
The NGA is open 7 days a week.
Access to Within Without is free.


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