Renowned L.A. artist James Turrell's new retrospective at LACMA is "one of the most ambitious modern art exhibitions ever mounted in Los Angeles," said the museum's director, Michael Govan, at the press preview on Wednesday, and it certainly shows. It's full of dark rooms, colored lights and optical illusions that test what your eyes are able to achieve — like yoga for your retina. My favorite was the work from Turrell's Ganzfeld series, where you ascend stairs into a room of white walls, enveloped in lights that slowly change from one color to another.
The show, which begins Sunday, is ambitious logistically as well, as many works limit the number of people who can enter at any time. Only four can be in the Ganzfeld piece, for instance, so the next in line stands at the bottom of the stairs, looking up at this light box, as it waiting to ascend into heaven.
The show goes until April — three times as along as the typical LACMA exhibit of this kind — so that everyone can get a chance to experience everything. Christine Y. Kim, LACMA's associate curator of contemporary art and co-curator of the exhibit, notes that while museum exhibits' popularity are sometimes measured by the amount of people who attend, the private nature of some of Turrell's work makes such an appraisal irrelevant.
The limited experience that is far and away the hottest ticket is a piece called Light Reignfall, mainly because it has the small capacity: one.
The main part of the work is a 10-foot-tall metal sphere with steps leading up to it. When your turn is called, assistants in lab coats ask you to walk up the steps and lie down on a narrow white bed, which then gets pushed sideways into the sphere. There you experience a 10-minute light show, coordinated to beeping noises you hear through headphones.
You sign up for a slot online, and it's $45, though that includes admission to the Turrell exhibit, which is $25 — $10 above the normal museum price. (The experience is only $15 for LACMA members — Turrell admission for them without it free.) It's booked until August.
Kim says that the work is intended to bring you to an "alpha state," something between consciousness and sleeping — kind of like when you're just waking up and you're not sure if what you're experiencing is a dream or real. At that point in the night, your eyes may still be closed, and the light show does indeed resemble what you see when your eyes are closed and you rub them to create colors.
Viewers choose between the "hard" program and the "soft" one. "With the harder one I saw more images," says Brittany Slattery, one of the "performance art assistants" in lab coats, who was sitting by a computer screen and would click a box to turn the program on. "There aren't any, but my mind created them from the lights I was seeing — like patterns, flowers, animals. Sort of — not religious imagery but Sanskrit sort of things. Which could be a little because I was in a state of anxiety. The softer one was much more kaleidoscopic — I could sit back and enjoy the light show. Not that I didn't enjoy the harder one, but it was more of a visceral experience, physically and emotionally."
Some "can't help but tear up because of what's happening physiologically in the eyes," Kim says. "Some people report seeing memories from their childhood or landscapes or the sky or the sun."
Kim's own experience, which she first had with a similar Turrell work in Japan, "was much more abstract. It took me inside of myself...as a simultanteous inner experience as well as an experience of the cosmos — that the inside is somehow the same scale as the cosmos."
Turrell began making what he calls "Perceptual Cells," works intended for one viewer, back in the 1980s, Kim says. For one of them, the viewer sat in a hair salon chair, leaned back, and looked up at a light above. Another took place in a phone booth.
The fact that Perceptual Cells are decorated as everyday experiences is no coincidence. An MRI is not just a convenient way to describe Light Reignfall — the work is meant to evoke a medical procedure. You wait in chairs, like in a waiting room, and the women in lab coats hand you a clipboard and ask you to sign a waiver (which I assume, in addition to being part of the performance, is also an actual waiver). These works seem intended to connect abnormal experiences to the quotidian aspects of our lives, to show how our everyday eyes can do extraordinary things.
The spherical, MRI-like Perceptual Cells are part of Turrell's "Gasworks" series — Light Reignfall is one of only a handful of those. It was originally in England, Kim says, but taken apart, brought to LACMA and reassembled. To create the light and sound program, a studio in Brooklyn collaborated with light technicians in Germany.
Light Reignfall appeared to be booked during the press preview, but there was a bit of down time between appointments and I got to slip in. I picked the hard version — "go big or go home," I guess, though I doubt that phrase is often the rationale behind selecting a visual art experience.
For much of the show, it felt like I was looking through a kaleidoscope powered by a turbine. In parts, the chaos would ebb, and the color blue, say, would envelope the whole space.
I tend to be on the claustrophobic side, and at one point during the first minute, I seriously considered pushing the emergency button (on a device you hold in your hand) and having them wheel me out. The area inside is sizable, but the fact that you're closed in by a small door that's only the width of a human did not feel comforting.
Plus the lights are so powerful that closing your eyes doesn't fully get rid of them — you have to put your hands in front of your face. Ten minutes? I wondered. How can I stand this for ten minutes? When will I know when ten minutes is up? I started counting ten seconds over and over, just to know how much time is passed. How many times do I have to do that? 60? Too many.
But about a third of the way through, my mind settled in, and it did become a kind of meditative experience. My everyday worries would occasionally creep back, but for much of it I was able to relax, let the light wash over me and let my brain turn off.
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And when I walked out, I must admit, I felt yet another kind of pleasure that I'm not sure the artist intended: I could now tell everyone I did this. And they'd want to do it too. They'd just have to wait till August.