Immaterial: a Review of James Turrell at Guggenheim

While there is nothing physiologically nebulous about how we see things through the use of our eyes and brains, nonetheless what we actually see or think we see is still up for much debate. Whether one would rather choose to believe things only exist in relation to our visual perception of what they are surrounded by or as oppose to feel more inclined to accept the idea that things exist independent of our consciousness and that we have access to them through our senses; but the question of whether what we see is what it really is as in appearance is still mysterious and mesmerizing enough for us to continue the debate of its intrinsic property and certainty. Open until Sept. 25 at the Guggenheim Museum, an exhibition of James Turrell's current installations and a selection of older works gives me the opportunity to toss some ideas and reflections in my head. This exhibition provides me just about enough visual stimuli to remind me of my physiological apparatus for seeing and to question the accuracy of my perceptions.

James Turrell, Afrum I (White), 1967. Projected light, dimensions variable. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Panza Collection, Gift 92.4175 © James Turrell. Photo: David Heald © SRGF

To clarify what I said in the beginning about how there is nothing physiologically nebulous about how we see, I merely mean to point out the facts of how our eyes create vision. To put it simply and generally, it goes something like this- first, light passes through the cornea, that is the clear and dome shaped surface covering the front of the eye. The cornea then bends, or that it refracts the coming light. The colored part of the eye that we call the iris regulates the size of pupil as to control the amount of light that enters the eye. Then, behind the pupil or the lens that is a clear part of the eye further focuses light onto the retina. The retina is a thin, delicate, photosensitive tissue that contains the special photoreceptor cells that convert light into electrical signals. These electrical signals are processed further, and travel from the retina of the eye to the brain through the optic nerve which is a bundle of about one million nerve fibers. Thus we "see" with our brains while our eyes collect visual information that helps begin this complex process.*  See, it is not so hard to understand after all.

The more challenging question to answer is how much of what we see is real versus a mis-calculation of our eyes and brains. Turrell has been toying with our ability to see light and color through his art installations for decades, yet his works has not ceased to fascinate us about our own ability for visual perception and the relationship that we form with our surroundings based on the visual senses. From the above explanation of how our eyes receive information by refraction of light, it becomes easy to understand why Turrell chooses to use light as a medium to make works that effectively stimulate our perceptions. Take for example Afrum I (White), 1967 (the image above the diagram of an eye), the work gives one the impression that we are seeing an illuminating white cube suspended in the air. According to some theory, light is only perceptible when it is reflected off of a surface. Yet this piece is presenting something different when there is no surface visible to the eye for any of the light to reflect off of and we still see light coming through. This is perhaps due to a little trick of placing the fluorescent fixture at an oblique angle to the reduced wall partition and thus forms this immaterial geometry apparently floating in air. Then again, it is not so important as to know how the visual effect is achieved but more important as to realize how easily our eyes can be tricked to see things that our minds instantly start to protest its physical existence.

James Turrell, Aten Reign, 2013. Daylight and LED light. Temporary site-specific installation, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York © James Turrell. Photo: © Florian HolzherrJames

For the highlight of this exhibition, Turrell built a site-specific installation called Aten Reign and it uses both day light and LED light to dramatically transform the appearance of the rotunda in the museum. For those who have been to the Guggenheim before this installation knows that from the bottom looking up the space is like a spiral. As the interior structure gives the impression of spiraling upwards, this installation implements gradual changes in daylight and artificial light to create a visual effect of being covered under halos of illuminating colors. Looking up at the piece, it is as if one is immersed inside the aura of heavenly creatures and that it continuously gives off of the feeling of calmness. The feeling is almost similar to watching the sun gradually setting and turning the vast sky from blue to yellow to orange until an intense warm red emerges. By mimicking the color changes we see in nature it also seems to be playing with our internal senses for orientation in time and space. While looking up and observing the gradual changes in the colors we are confirmed by our senses of our physical being or existence occupying within the surrounding physically and emotionally.

To add a little more to the explanation of how our eyes create vision or how we see, here is a little about how we see color. To continue, inside the retina or the photosensitive tissue there are photoreceptor cells. There are two types of cells that are called cones and rods. The cone cells see color and bright light, while the rod cells see only shades of gray and work well in dim light.  With this combination of cones and rods, it helps us see objects in bright sunlight or in shade while still able to roughly identify the colors.**

On the one hand, it is easy to understand how our eyes see but on the other hand it is not so easy to explain or understand why certain light and color can make us experience different emotional responses versus the others. Furthermore, even with a clear understanding of how we see it does not account for the mistakes our eyes and brains tend to make in unusual situations. This brings me back to the beginning of my post when I asked the question of how much I see is to be taken for certainty? For this, I can't say I have an answer. However the reason of bringing up the question and explaining the physiological apparatus and process of seeing is so that with this questioning and understanding, I hope to shed a little light on the mysteries and wonders of our perceptions as well as to inspire some appreciation for how through the sense of vision we can experience our world both emotionally and physically on levels that reach beyond just the visual.

*National Eye Institute,
**Optical Illusions Lab, Silver Dolphin Books


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