By Jessica Herrington
James Turrell’s immersive works follow a centuries old tradition–the study of light. Until Turrell, the thing-ness of light itself had not been thoroughly considered. Turrell’s unique use of light as an object is an exploration in human visual perception. Turell himself explains, “I make spaces that apprehend light for our perception, and in some ways gather it, or seem to hold it…my work is more about your seeing than it is about my seeing, although it is a product of my seeing.”
Turrell’s work helps us understand our own visual limitations and what it means to see. Seeing is not as simple as light travelling through our eyes and representing a picture in our minds. Instead, seeing involves many complex and relatively unknown cognitive processes. This accounts for our different subjective experiences; each person will view artworks differently depending on their previous experiences and differing mental architecture.
Much of what we experience when seeing is created by our own conscious minds. By providing us with only light, Turrell helps our minds to wander and generate new sensations from extremely minimal input. The sensations that we feel when we see are shaped by the outside world, yet, these sensations do not exist in the outside world.
Turrell’s work evokes sensations like greenness and redness, which in scientific and philosophical terms is known as qualia. Qualia are private, known only to the person experiencing them. Through our own experiences of color, Turrell’s work allows us to delve into a previously unknown part of ourselves.
Seeing in a scientific sense is something that artists are only beginning to explore. As artists, we can learn a lot from the science–inspired methods of Turrell. We may be able to make progress by learning more about the science of how we see the world, leading to new frontiers in artistic exploration.
See his recent exhibition James Turell: A Retrospective through June 8, 2015 at the National Gallery of Australia.
Past exhibitions include:
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, James Turrell: A Retrospective, May 26, 2013 – April 6, 2014
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, James Turrell, June 21 – September 25, 2013
Pace London, James Turrell, February 7 – April 5, 2014
The Israel Museum, James Turrell: Light Spaces, June 6, 2014 – January 3, 2015