Few artists have given up their whole lives and artistic career to one single artform and field of experimentation without ever producing anything banal, obvious or boring. James Turrell, the 75-year-old Californian, who has been working with light for 50 years, is undoubtedly one of them. The Substance of Light, a retrospective at the Frieder Burda Museum in Baden-Baden until 28th October, offers the public a chance to quite literally undergo an “illuminating” experience.
Turrell’s work is not object-oriented; it has a powerful emotional charge but is also extremely physically demanding. His installations straddle indoor and outdoor worlds, natural and artificial light, which speak to the viewer without words and without objects, impacting vision, body and mind. They are solemn, enveloping and suggestive. Very real experiences, in fact. In Turrell’s work, the intangible material par excellence takes shape, becoming a tool for moulding space, and the viewer feels its presence both physically and concretely. What really counts is no longer light but the way in which the viewer encounters, feels and deals with it. As the artist himself says: “With no object, no image and no focus, what are you looking at? You are looking at you looking.”
The intense relationship between installation and visitor begins right at the beginning of the Baden-Baden exhibition, with the huge Apani light space, previously shown at the Venice Biennale in 2011. Here, as in other works, the room appears to have no limits, blotted from our line of vision by an unusual sequence of light rays. Thus the spiritual experience that is the focus of Turrell’s light art begins. Devoid of points of reference, the viewer ends up turning his own gaze upon himself, prompted by the physicality of the work to adopt a meditative, intimate and collected approach. “In a way, light unites the spiritual world and the ephemeral, physical world,” says the artist, who encourages the viewer to immerse themselves in a space both known – in terms of reality – and absolutely unknown – in terms of sensory perception. This is the high point of Turrell’s art, the intersection between science, technology and spirituality, achieved through a poetic approach that knows no parallel; the work has no shape, it exists solely in relation to the viewer immersed in it or relating to it.
Turrell’s most ambitious project is also represented at the exhibition. Roden Crater is an extinct volcano in the Arizona desert, which he has converted into a space observatory. The site was chosen for various purposes: from observing the changing light during the day to the movements of the planets and stars at night, and is reminiscent of some of the Inca settlements. A selection of models, photographs and a documentary narrate the artist’s magnum opus.
The exhibition unfolds with phenomenon after phenomenon, room after room, culminating in Turrell’s latest creation, specially crafted for the Museum Frieder Burda collection. Curved Wide Glass, Accretion Disk is a perfect summation of the artist’s cosmic approach. Like a disk of gas and stardust orbiting around a celestial body, the viewer “tunes in” to the curved object that constitutes the work, observing its colour changes over a period of several hours.
JAMES TURRELL. The Substance of Light
Museum Frieder Burda
8b Lichtentaler Allee
9th June – 28th October 2018