American James Turrell is generally considered one the most influential light artists of our time. An extensive body of work reflects his wide-ranging examination of the diverse forms of natural and artificial light.
Turrell grew up in a Quaker family. Wikipedia claims that the Turrells "gave up electricity, cars and other amenities", but this is probably due to someone mistaking the Quakers for the Amish, whose way of life still has echoes of the 19th century. Therefore the simple assumption that Turrell's fascination with artificial light arose from his upbringing is simply not true.
He began to design his first light rooms aged 23, having already completed a maths and psychology degree. He went on to study art and a scholarship meant that he could devote more time to the analysis of light.
Turrell fuses light and space to create experiential processes. His works often seek to make the basic elements of aesthetic perception somehow tangible through the careful use of spatial light installations. A prime example is the so-called Skyspaces, examples of which Turrell has constructed across world. Skyspaces are large rooms where visitors can take a seat on chairs lining the walls. An opening in the ceiling offers an unrestricted view of the sky. The perspectives in the room seem almost to take on a physical presence, but in reality they consist of nothing more than light.
An impressive example of the use of artificial light is the Akhob installation in Las Vegas. Here Turrell uses the 'Ganzfeld' (literally 'entire area'), a completely formless and homogeneous entity that fills the whole field of view. The spatial boundaries of the room are blurred through a combination of rounded corners and projected light, which emanates from the front of the room and slowly changes colour at regular intervals. Orientation is suddenly a challenge. The trance-like state visitors experience creates the illusion of infinite space. Only in the photographs of Florian Holzherr, who shows people in the installations, does it become clear that there is actually a room with defined edges.
The most ambitious project to date is the Roden Crater. Turrell began his search for a suitable site for a predominantly subterranean light installation in the 1970s. Eventually he found one in the Arizona Desert. There he discovered an extinct volcano crater with an oval caldera (a volcanic feature shaped like a cauldron) surrounded by 400 square miles of desert. Turrell bought the area and called it the Roden Crater. He created a series of rooms, tunnels and shafts to transform the crater into a giant light observatory and to thereby make the phenomena of light in nature something that can be palpably experienced.
James Turrell once said that "light is not something that illuminates other things, but a substance that manifests itself". This idea of light as a physical material runs like a thread through his projects and most probably plays a significant role in the undoubted popularity of his work. By making the intangible somehow tangible, Turrell creates what only truly great artists can: a completely new perception.
Pictures: Florian Holzherr