James Turrell, view of Perfectly Clear (Ganzfeld), 1991. Photo: Florian Holzherr, © James Turrell

James Turrell

North Adams, Massachusetts

MASS MoCA

If people know one thing about James Turrell, it’s his vast Roden Crater project in the desert northeast of Flagstaff, Arizona. He acquired the site in 1977 and has been working on it ever since. To make this lasting contribution to the study of light, Turrell removed 1.3 million cubic yards of earth from within the cinder core of the crater so that visitors could look up and experience the sky as a solid dome rather than an unlimited void. While “Into the Light,” which remains on view at least through 2019, isn’t quite on the scale of Roden Crater, it is the largest collection of Turrell’s works ever assembled at one site. In addition to installations from all six decades of his career, the show features several models related to Roden Crater, which give a sense of the project’s many facets, including the tunnels that link the various rooms.

“Into the Light” provides an excellent introduction to Turrell’s fascination with and experimental approach to light as form. A pioneer of the Southern California Light and Space movement, who trained in psychology and mathematics as well as art, he began using light (or its absence) as a sculptural medium in 1966. One room is blank except for a corner into which white light is projected to form a cube with an outward-facing edge: But which edge? Depending on the focus of your eyes (and it’s surprisingly hard to change that focus), you might see the top or the bottom of the cube. This may be a standard illusion in other contexts, but when it is created by simply shining a light into a corner, it becomes a fascinating small-scale example of how the human mind deals with light and space.

Perfectly Clear (Ganzfeld) (1991), the world’s largest Ganzfeld (an undifferentiated visual field that causes the loss of depth perception), offers another example at a different scale. Only a few people are allowed in the room at a time (after donning booties to protect the white floor), so everyone can get the most out of the experience. From the entrance room, you ascend a short staircase to the primary space and are immediately disoriented. Without depth perception or other visual clues, you can’t tell where the two-story room, with its curved walls, begins and ends. (The room reflects Turrell’s experience as a pilot; in the air, losing the horizon line can lead to dangerous consequences.) A high and broad expanse of totally uncertain depth opens in front of you, suffused with changing colors interrupted at the front by periodic strobe-like patterns. You feel as if you’d plunge off the edge of the world if you moved too far forward (though you’d only fall off an invisible drop, if you ignore the warning marks and sounds). If you attempt to recover some sense of orientation by turning around to face the room you came from, you’ll only see its neutral walls dissolve into saturated colors, caused by the effects of the color field on your fatigued eyes.

Hind Sight, one of Turrell’s “Dark Spaces,” adjoins the heaven-like atmosphere of Perfectly Clear. A guide rail takes you along short corridors that turn back on themselves to ensure that no light gets through. The “non-viewer” then sits in one of two chairs in a totally darkened space. The 15 minutes or so pass too quickly. (The one flaw is that you can still hear the outside world beyond the room; soundproofing would be great.) It takes a few moments for your eyes to readjust to the light that we normally take for granted and that Turrell celebrates brilliantly in the remainder of the show.

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