Notes and Notices

On art, architecture and design


Perception over time: the Turrell Retrospective at LACMA

Posted by Carren Jao Pineda |

Right now, Angelenos are enjoying a rare treat, a collection of artist James Turrell's works in one venue. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is hosting a retrospective of the Pasadena-born artist, who is known for manipulating light and space.

"I'm interested in how we perceive," says Turrell at the exhibition preview last week, "It's how we construct the reality in which we live."

As retrospectives go, LACMA's exhibition not filled to the brim with pieces arranged in chronological order. LACMA director Michael Govan rightly points out that Turrell's works take up a lot of real estate (33,000 square to be exact). Spread between the second floor of the Broad Contemporary Art Museum and Resnick Pavilion, Turrell's installations involve creating small enclosures--settings where visitors can lose themselves--and rigging that up with wires and light fixtures, which ultimately disappear from view.

I find the relative dearth of the exhibition appealing. Often, retrospectives try to cover every base exhaustively, in the process overwhelming the harried visitor trying to see all there is, but not so with the LACMA exhibition. The museum gives us just enough pieces to get a feel for Turrell's work, but not enough that our eyes see spots, hurriedly moving from one installation to another.

As I wandered the exhibition with other journalists and donors, I realized that viewing this particular retrospective demands a new frame of mind from its visitors, so here are my three tips for getting the most of the exhibition:

1) Wait for it!

If there is just one piece of advice you mustn't forget, it would be to follow Barney Stinson's imperative and "wait for it..." As I went through the artist's installations, I noticed just how much we've all been inculcated into the cult of efficiency. Many visitors simply went in, looked and left. Yes, they did "see" Turrell's pieces, but I doubt if they were able to appreciate the full experience.

Turrell has famously said that perception is his medium. As such, our eyes need time to perceive. It is not enough to get into the room, stand in front of the piece for a few seconds, then leave. Really give yourself time to see that you're seeing.

Stare at the light ahead of you, let your thoughts wander, gaze at the edges of the light pieces. It's okay. Don't worry (too much) about those waiting in line behind you. Give yourself some time, and then wait a few more minutes past that.

Most of the artist's installations change as time passes. The light can, little by little, morph from a subtle rosy pink to a vibrant magenta to brilliant blue. In some, a hint of moving light suddenly appears in total darkness.  In all cases, a little extra time spent is worth it.

2) Be prepared for inconvenience

Much of Turrell's works have limited capacity, which works to maximize visitor enjoyment. It is difficult to appreciate a piece when every few minutes someone crosses in front of your field of vision. While it's great when one is already standing in front of a piece, it requires those outside the piece to wait their turn. For those waiting in line, please be patient. Perhaps, it's a good time to strike up a conversation with those in front or behind you.

"Breathing Light" only allows eight people in at a time. Before that, one has to remove their shoes and don disposable booties to cover their feet. "Dark Matter" is only made for two people to experience. LACMA's newly commissioned "Light Reignfall" is a strictly individual piece. In it, visitors (who will have to shell out an additional $45) are like cakes waiting to be baked. They are asked to lie down in a large tray, which slides into a spherical device that immerses them in a sphere of light. Everyone who wishes to be baked in light are required to sign a waiver. Attendants assure me that should any emergency arise within the 20-minute immersion, there is a button which visitors can depress to call for help. If you are willing to give this a try, reserve now. "Perceptual Cell" is booked until August.

3) Push your boundaries

The light artist's works are built to push the limits of our perception, but rarely are they supposed to taken in just from one vantage point. In "Afrum, White" and "Juke, Green" especially, the artist draws a subtle line on the ground, which many visitors will take as physical boundaries.

Many would not walk past the implied line, but a quick consultation with the museum guard tells me visitors are allowed to get as close as two feet from the projection.

Don't just stand in one spot. Walk to the left or right of a piece and see how it changes. Approach the light and see how it changes your perspective.

Having not known these three things as I went to see the Turrell show, I'll probably have to come in a second time to take in each piece fully, but I hope this post will save some of you another trip. If not, that's all right, the show runs until April next year, plus, these three tips work just as well for life in general.


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