A wonderful world of light

Artist James Turrell creates experiences with light and space

"At my first exhibits, people were saying 'that’s just a light on the wall'," recalls James Turrell, on his initial attempts to pass on his deep passion for light back in the 1970s. Today, Turrell, who chose to make art with light rather than to paint it on canvas or to capture it in a photo, is one of America’s most mesmerising artists. Since 1997, Zumtobel has been a partner in some of Turrell’s explorations of light and space.

Artist James Turrell
James Turrell in his created Skyspace in the Bremer Kunsthalle. © Harald Rehling

Born into a family of Quakers in Los Angeles in 1943, James Turrell has been working with light, space, and visual perception, for over 50 years. Turrell - who is also a pilot and has a degree in psychology - transforms light into captivating art by manipulating the viewer's experience of it. "My work is more about your seeing than it is about my seeing, even though it’s a product of my seeing. My desire is to set up a situation to which I take you, and let you see. It becomes your experience. Traditionally, artists paint what they see. For me, everything revolves around the observer," explains Turrell, on the medium of his art being perception. With his background in psychology, Turrell is well placed to reveal through his work how our eyes and brains process light and space, and how everything we see is a mere illusion.

Artist James Turrell
Skyspace Amarna (2015) Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmanien, Australien. © James Turrell / Florian Holzherr

Optical illusions are paramount in his coloured light installations. The best known examples of this approach can be found in Turrell’s ongoing series of Skyspaces: enclosed spaces with an opening in the roof, enabling the viewer to observe changes in the sky. Having started in the Seventies, there are now almost 90 Skyspaces installed worldwide, from the UK’s Yorkshire Sculpture Park to Tokamachi in Japan, over to the Museum of Modern Art in Antwerp, Belgium, and MoMA PS1 in New York, with many places in between.

Now Zumtobel is collaborating with Turrell to make a Skyspace happen on a mountain peak near the ski resort town of Lech am Arlberg, in the Austrian Alps. It’s not Turrell’s only globetrotting works, Perceptual Cells are another series spread across the continents: enclosed, autonomous spaces built for one person at a time, in which one’s perception of space is challenged by light.

Artist James Turrell
Skyspace Twilight Epiphany (2012) Rice University, Houston, USA. © James Turrell / Florian Holzherr
Artist James Turrell
Aerial view of Roden Crater looking towards Little Colorado River, Flagstaff, USA. © James Turrell / Florian Holzherr

However, maybe the work he’s best known for, took place at the 400,000 year old, more than 3km wide, Roden Crater in Arizona, USA. With his pilot’s hat on, Turrell spotted the extinct volcano from the air, acquired it, and from the late 1970s, began to transform it into a centre of light and a natural observatory. It’s a site where one can enjoy the sky, the stars, and even light from other galaxies, in a giant ganzfeld experiment (a technique of controlled sensory input). The artist declared that the Roden Crater may now be seen as his magnum opus but that he never intended it that way, and when asked about the always delayed deadline, Turrell laughs it off by comparing it with "Your friends who never finished their doctoral thesis. I am still working on it though, it’s coming!"

Part of the success of Turrell's work worldwide, and the Roden Crater, is its summum bonum: the only way to see it is to experience it first hand. It’s not easily photographed – "Well, someone has to make up for all the work that is photographed better than it is!" chuckles the artist. Incidentally, several attempts were made by impatient Turrell fans to enter the Roden Crater illegally. Over eager to get a glimpse of it, since the work in progress is closed for the general public, only a very limited amount of guests have had access to the experience in the extinct volcano so far.

Artist James Turrell
Roden Crater - Crater’s Eye, Flagstaff, USA © James Turrell / Florian Holzherr
Artist James Turrell
Roden Crater - Alpha Tunnel looking towards Sun & Moon Space, Flagstaff, USA. © James Turrell / Florian Holzherr
Artist James Turrell
Roden Crater - Alpha Tunnel looking towards East Portal, Flagstaff, USA. © James Turrell / Florian Holzherr

Turrell uses contemporary light-based technologies for his optical effects, and has found a natural partner in Zumtobel. The collaboration between Zumtobel and Turrell has its origin in the exhibition that marked the opening of Kunsthaus Bregenz in the summer of 1997. Zumtobel was supporting the facade installation at the time, as well as the interior displays, and the company was fascinated by Turrell’s works. "Then as now, Turrell was able to use light to create spaces and engage our senses, and yet at the same time utterly disorient us," says Jürg Zumtobel, Chairman of the Supervisory Board.

More collaboration followed, such as Turrell’s Ganzfeld Bridget’s Bardo in 2009 and Ganzfeld Apani in 2011. Other projects, in which Turrell and Zumtobel were partners in light, were Tall Glass Shonto (an aperture within which LEDs are programmed to change slowly over the course of several hours) "The Geometry of Light" in 2007 in Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, Germany.

Artist James Turrell
Ganzfeld Bridget's Bardo (2009) Collection Turrell Studio. © James Turrell / Florian Holzherr
Artist James Turrell
Tall Glass Shonto (2007) Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, Germany. © James Turrell / Florian Holzherr
Artist James Turrell
Ganzfeld Akhob (2013) Las Vegas, USA. © James Turrell / Florian Holzherr

Turrell even curated the company's 2014/2015 artistic annual report, titled "Extraordinary Ideas – Realized". The report features important installations by the artist from various periods of his oeuvre. An extensive photographic documentation of Turrell's installations is accompanied by essays and dialogues by and with some of his prominent contemporaries and companions, including experts from the fields of astronomy, physics, art history and medicine.

The newest joint project is the Skyspace in Lech, Austria, where Zumtobel also collaborates with Turrell. It is set to open in June of 2018. "It is both an honor and a great pleasure to work with this globally renowned and treasured light artist, with whom we have been on friendly term for many years now," says Jürg Zumtobel.

Artist James Turrell
The Zumtobel Group annual report designed by James Turrell. © Zumtobel
Artist James Turrell
The report features important installations by the artist. © Zumtobel
Artist James Turrell
The annual report includes previously unpublished material on his earlier works. © Zumtobel

The majority of Turrell's work is made with little light, and for good reason: "You see colours better in low light, because the eyes are open. In fact, we're not created for the light of day. When we go out, we half-close our eyes or wear sunglasses. We're made for dusk, for the light of caves. When the level of light is reduced, the pupils dilate. One has the impression that you can touch the colours. We always have too much light. When you want to see well, you have to be in the dark."

Turrell's work stimulates all the senses and leads us into a world of experience and emotion. Viewers are even witnesses to the experience of light's spiritual value. "Light has had a meaning in art for a very long time. Maybe art and everything that artists and architects have introduced, moves in the direction of spirituality." This meditative atmosphere in the work of Turrell might have its roots in the artist's upbringing in a Quaker community, whose members believe each human has access to "the small light within", or just in the human condition that makes us so alive: curiosity. By sharing the results of his curiosity, Turrell is definitively pushing the boundaries.

[Article in cooperation with DAMNº]

Artist James Turrell
Ganzfeld Double Vision (2013) Ekebergparken, Oslo, Norway. © James Turrell / Florian Holzherr
Artist James Turrell
Ganzfeld Akhob (2013) Las Vegas, USA. © James Turrell / Florian Holzherr
Artist James Turrell

Skyspace Amarna (2015) Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia.

Artist James Turrell

Ganzfeld Bridget's Bardo (2009) Collection Turrell Studio. © James Turrell / Florian Holzherr

Artist James Turrell

Ganzfeld Bridget's Bardo (2009) Collection Turrell Studio. © James Turrell / Florian Holzherr

Artist James Turrell

Ganzfeld Bridget's Bardo (2009) Collection Turrell Studio. © James Turrell / Florian Holzherr

Artist James Turrell

Tall Glass Shonto (2007) Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, Germany. © James Turrell / Florian Holzherr