An address by Peter Iden in honor of James Turrell, 3 November 2006
Light from the Spaces of Dreams
[testimonial image=““ name=“Peter Iden“ title=““]Dear James Turrell, Ladies and Gentlemen:
In connection with the reception of works of art, whether in the field of music, literature, theater or the visual arts, we say that they enable experiences of a special kind. Here, the term “experience” implies the potential capacity of art to contribute to our general experience as human beings, to embody a vital moment that immediately affects our lives. Afterwards, after having had such an experience, we feel a different person than before. This is why Rilke viewed the work of art as an appeal to our conduct: change yourself, change your life. This represents a very great demand in two respects – a demand made on the work of art to trigger this reaction, and a demand made on the viewer to be receptive to the work, to allow it to affect him, to become an “experience” and thus part of his life.
The quality and intensity of such aesthetic experiences can certainly differ, from a subtle, almost unnoticeable tremor to the kind of confrontation that can amount to a true adventure. The experiences provided by the art of James Turrell, developed since the 1970s and most recently embodied in “Sky-Space,” publicly accessible in Salzburg as of today, have something of both. The effects engendered are subtle, and demand a high degree of receptiveness on the part of the viewer. On the other hand, these works are so surprising and audacious in nature that their effects are highly dramatic and invariably an adventure.
My first encounter with a work of Turrell’s was just such an unmitigated adventure. I had heard from American friends about an extraordinary project in the Arizona desert, near Flagstaff, involving the transformation of the crater of a volcano that had gone extinct thousands of years ago into an unprecedented observatory of the skies. How was one to imagine such a thing?
I met Turrell in Flagstaff. He agreed to show us and explain his “Roden Crater Project,” begun in the 1980s and then still underway. The drive through the desert to the site of the project was dramatic enough. Turrell led the way in a jeep, after having told me to drive my rental car as fast as I could across the untracked prairie, or else I might get stuck in one of the countless sand dunes. It would be hard to dig the car out again, so I’d better be careful. The threat turned out to be justified, because though I did manage to get to the crater, next day my Ford’s engine was so clogged with sand that the car had to be replaced.
So what was there to see in the middle of the prairie, what was developing? In the slopes of the extinct volcano, which Turrell had discovered from the air – he is a passionate pilot – a tunnel had been excavated and passageways dug. These led to observation points that were oriented towards certain constellations of stars as they appeared at certain seasons of the year. From the middle of the caldera, whose edge had been shaped into a sharp, circular dividing line, the vault of the sky appeared framed like a nearby image that drew the viewer into it. The incursions into the natural form of the crater had transformed it into an ideal site for the perception of landscape, light and sky, sun, moon and stars.
It was truly a strange undertaking, this “Roden Crater Project,” a work of the largest conceivable format and on a spectacular scale – but motivated by a yearning for silence, extreme focus and concentration, and at the same time freedom of perception. It was impelled by a visionary urge for transcendence, for overcoming the limits of our habitual perception of the world, a yearning for the heavens, which still, no matter how many satellites are sent up, remain the most distant, most inaccessible realm of all.
During the years of work he invested in the elaborate project in the Arizona desert, Turrell collected experiences, experiences in dealing with space and light, with great expanse and intimate proximity, which have since come to inform a number of smaller scale but no less expansive installations in Europe and America. What you, ladies and gentlemen, now have before your eyes in Salzburg represents the most advanced form of “Sky-Space” the artist has yet to achieve.
The basic shape is that of an ellipse, in trigonometry a form of the greatest openness. The interior walls of the work are, as it were, dematerialized by means of changing colors of artificial light – a process astonishing enough in itself. But this is accompanied by a further, quite unprecedented effect: the gradations of artificial light are calibrated such that they alter, in soft transitions, the color of the section of sky visible through the aperture in the ceiling of the space. These transitions extend, in a cycle lasting about forty minutes, from delicate, light hues, for which language has no words, to pitch black. You have to leave the structure and look at the sky from outside to appreciate the different hue of the sky as seen from the interior.
What is the point of the exercise? Turrell takes light as his subject. Not by attempting to capture its effects in paint, as did, say, artists from Corregio and Vermeer down to Turner and the Impressionists, but by letting light speak for itself. This had been attempted, before Turrell, by the artists of the European ZERO movement in the 1960s, foremost among them Otto Piene, Heinz Mack, and Günther Uecker. Yet Turrell’s approach goes farther. He not only addresses the medium, which here becomes the message as well, but investigates our perception of the effects of light per se. Because our perception of the color of the sky from inside the space is predisposed by the changing values of the artificial lighting, we see the actual sky differently from inside than from outside. In this way, Turrell reveals the constraints to which perception is subject, pointing out that it is not as free as we would like to think. “No one can do otherwise than he does” – this is the thesis in which Wolf Singer, the Frankfurt brain researcher, summed up his revolutionary investigations, which have attracted worldwide attention in recent years. His statement finds a surprising parallel in the predisposition of perception demonstrated by Turrell. We have certain perceptions quite inadvertantly. You might say they just happen to us.
On a technical level, this is a physical, physiological, but also a mechanical process. It it transformed into art by the superadded value of metaphorical meaning. In truth, Turrell says (enthusiast that he is), he is continually in search of the light that illuminates the spaces of our dreams. This is an aim that brings the California artist into proximity with the protagonists of European Romanticism, from Novalis to Jean Paul. The technically achieved point of a light that paints itself and predetermines our perception, understood as an element of art, hopes to make us more attentive and receptive to the extraordinary in the ordinary. Turrell has a profound sense of dissatisfaction at the way we deal superficially and offhandedly with time, with the phenomena of nature, and with human perception itself. In fact – he wishes to tell us – everything is unique, every moment of seeing, feeling, thinking; each and every moment of life is an incomparable event, full of mystery, miraculous, beautiful.
Dear James Turrell, congratulations, this “Sky-Space” is truly a magnificent achievement. It is great to have it here, on this hill above Salzburg, and soon – I am absolutely convinced – within the hearts and souls of all those who will come to see and marvel at it.
(Translation from German by John W. Gabriel)