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Light and (Social) Space

In late 2003 and early 2004, visitors to the Turbine Hall — the architectural canyon that is the defining feature of the refurbished power plant housing London’s Tate Modern museum — beheld The Weather Project, a work hatched in the Berlin studio of Olafur Eliasson. The son of Icelandic parents, Eliasson grew up in Denmark, where he maintains a home, and studied at the Royal Danish Academy of Arts in the early 1990s, but he was heavily influenced by the work of Robert Irwin and James Turrell, two artists who collaborated in perceptual experiments in the late 1960s, around the time Eliasson was born, and who, in the same period, became pioneering figures in Southern California’s emergent Light and Space art movement.

There’s no mistaking the influence of Turrell and Irwin in The Weather Project. Mirrors mounted on the ceiling doubled the Turbine Hall’s volume. A mist machine wafted synthesized London fog through the hall, and a giant semicircular form holding hundreds of monofrequency lamps, also doubled by the mirrors, appeared as if it were a whole sphere. This indoor sun emitted a narrow light frequency, illuminating the mist and bathing the space in a golden glow so intense that it appeared as if the world had been turned black and white, and then tinted yellow. Photographs of the scene are reminiscent of those Monet and Van Gogh paintings of landscapes flooded with colored light emanating from a circle in the sky. But the scene also was evocative of Georges Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte — 1884, as the Turbine Hall became a sort of beach, populated by gallerygoers who lingered, lounged, and engaged in the sort of basic communal appreciation of light and atmosphere that normally draws masses to the seaside.

The same sort of social phenomenon that drew nearly two million people to the Tate to check out Eliasson’s concocted phenomena can now be found at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), which is hosting the first large survey exhibition of the artist’s work. Included are rooms dealing in manipulations of light similar to those at the Tate, and a number of works here are related to explorations Eliasson tried out in Los Angeles, in exhibitions at Marc Foxx Gallery, and in his memorable 2005 series of projects that drew viewers from room to room through the Jamie Residence in the Pasadena hills. The San Francisco exhibition, along with two other current shows of work by Turrell and Irwin, drives home a key point with regard to the legacy of the Light and Space movement — that in focusing on giving viewers opportunity to consider their own perception of phenomena rather than the more conventional art experience of decoding signs, styles and imagery, Light and Space was, and continues to be, a social movement toward a collective heightened awareness.

Turrell, who completed a perceptual-psychology degree at Pomona College in 1965, and later revisited the neighborhood to attend the Claremont Graduate School, is enjoying a homecoming with the permanent installation of Skyspace on the Pomona campus, and an exhibition that opened in September at the Pomona College Museum of Art, which continues into the spring. The show includes one of his Ganzfeld works, in which a bath of light emanates from one end of a room designed — with flawless surfaces, a sloping floor, no shadows, and curves rather than corners — to deny the human brain the visual cues it usually relies upon in determining spatial depth. There are two of his Tall Glass pieces, in which an illuminated rectangle of color shifts much like the changing color of the sky, but here as the result of a collection of individually programmed LEDs. Also included are several models for architectural projects dealing with one of Turrell’s favorite tasks, framing the sky, which is just what Skyspace does. If you can imagine the matte taken from a picture frame, then enlarged to gigantic proportions and suspended overhead so as to isolate a swatch of the heavens, then you have an idea of the experience. At dusk, programmed lights hit the underside of the matte with shifting color that accentuates and complicates the view of the changing sky. A reflecting pool beneath expands the experience, while a ring of benches affords opportunity for viewing to become a group encounter.

Irwin, meanwhile, is illuminating San Diego with the first retrospective of his work since 1993. No museum is better suited for such a show than the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD), with more than 50 of his works in its collection, six of them just acquired. The exhibition surveys Irwin’s full career, from early adventures in Abstract Expressionism to proposals for major public commissions, and includes one of the best-ever installations of one of Irwin’s “disc” works. But stealing the show, and revealing Irwin going full throttle as he nears 80, are new works, including a gigantic installation of fluorescent light fixtures appropriately titled Light and Space, an installation of high-gloss, color-coated aluminum panels that multiply reflections of their viewers and surrounding architecture like a Mondrian house of mirrors, and a pair of new pieces involving the scrim material Irwin has experimented with for years.

Both of these are terrific, but Five x Five, a work of brilliant simplicity, should be remembered as a defining piece in Irwin’s career. Comprising two groups, each of five large framed scrims in parallel arrangement, the piece gives literal form to the sorts of atmospheric-perspective devices commonly used in illusionist painting and in theater (also by way of scrims) to simulate the actual phenomenon of objects appearing more fuzzy and dim in the distance. Here, however, with the scrims spaced apart just enough for viewers to walk between, the atmospheric effect is compressed, and stepped in a manner that confounds expectation. Imagine night falling, or a fog bank rolling in, with even, incremental layers.

Most profound is what the work does to one’s sense of personal and public space — the way the divided room allows you to all but rub up against a stranger and yet feel comfortably distant, as if in a whole other realm, or the way that it pits your perception of distance by estimation of scale against that based upon light and atmosphere, so that the people around you appear simultaneously near and far.

At any of these shows, you’re likely to witness, if not directly experience, something rarely seen at even the most socially conscious and community-oriented of exhibitions — actual strangers turning to one another and having earnest and intelligent conversations about what they see. In its promotional material for The Weather Project, the Tate quoted the 18th-century writer Samuel Johnson, who famously remarked, “It is commonly observed, that when two Englishmen meet, their first talk is of the weather; they are in haste to tell each other, what each must already know, that it is hot or cold, bright or cloudy, windy or calm.” Johnson might as well have been commenting on 20th-century Californians, for what lies beneath the idea that in conversing about the weather, strangers telling each other what they already know, is the fact that in so doing, they discuss, in the most immediate and intimate sense, that which they share regardless of culture — their awareness of presence in the here and now amid the phenomena of a shifting world. The most profound social, and even political, implication of such experience, understood by Eliasson, Turrell and Irwin, is that in moments of such shared phenomenological inquiry, we begin to understand who and where we are.

“Take Your Time: Olafur Eliasson” at SFMOMA, 151 Third St., San Francisco; Fri.–Tues. 11 a.m.–5:45 p.m., Thurs. 11 a.m.–8:45 p.m.; thru Feb. 24. (415) 357-4000 or www.sfmoma.org.

James Turrell at Pomona College Museum of Art, Montgomery Art Center, 333 N. College Way, Claremont; Tues.–Fri. noon–5 p.m., Sat.-Sun. 1–5 p.m.; Jan. 22 thru May 17. Skyspace, permanently installed at the Draper Courtyard, Pomona College (corner of Sixth St. & College Way), Claremont; always open, but visitors invited Sun.–Mon. 10 a.m.–8 p.m. (909) 621-8283 or www.pomona.edu/museum.

“Robert Irwin: Primaries and Secondaries” at MCASD, 1100 & 1001 Kettner Blvd., San Diego; Sat.–Tues. 11 a.m.–6 p.m., Thurs.–Fri. 11 a.m.–9 p.m.; thru Feb. 23 at 1100 Kettner, and thru April 13 at 1001 Kettner. (858) 454 3541 or www.mcasd.org.


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