James Turrell’s visions are sublime — and Sarah Lucas’s pieces are fabulously vulgar, says a wowed Waldemar Januszczak
While this great conceptual noun is doing its stuff for me, working away covertly on your insides, bringing light, I will have a bash at describing for you what you actually see when you visit the superb Turrell exhibition that has opened at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, that unlikely museum among the cow sheds that has somehow planted itself in the heart of rural Britain. How ridiculous that a world-class art-gallery setup should have found its way out here to these drizzly northern fields, surrounded by sheep. How wonderful, too.
They’ve opened a new space there: an underground gallery with grass growing on the roof in the fashionable and commendable eco-architectural style. So, if you look down from the top of the park, you can’t see it at all. But if you approach from below, it looms up before you like the famous black rockface that affected Wordsworth so profoundly in The Prelude, and caused him, like us, to reach for the s-word.
Inside the looming glass gallery are three of Turrell’s huge light installations. The first is the darkest, and the trickiest to describe. It involves entering a room that is so thoroughly blackened, you have to feel your way into it, momentarily blinded, unusually reliant on senses other than sight.
You’ll notice your feet feel particularly nervous at the thought of a bottomless chasm in front of you, or some rocks. Strange how Turrell, using up-to-the-minute electronics, optics and physics, sets in motion primitive natural instincts that feel so strongly as if they were acquired so long ago.
We seem to have walked into the last moment of a twilight, just before it becomes night. And the conditions have been perfectly sculpted to awaken your sense of the sublime. In front, you can just about make out a large bluish rectangle with a presence so weak, you’re not sure if it is actually there, or not. Flanking the mysterious rectangle are two equally intangible glows of paleness, one to your right, the other on your left, both of which seem to be moving backwards, into themselves, as if they were sucking in the last vestiges of the disappearing light. It’s spooky, subtle, transportative. The temptation is to read it as a sort of mystical or religious experience.
But I think that would be wrong. Turrell explores optical and physical sensations that are older than religion, that date from the first human contact with the natural world, from the first consideration of the sky’s darkness, and for which we seem, as a species, to have an irrefrangible taste. The enemy here isn’t Satan, it’s sodium lighting.
Gray Day, as the darkest light piece is optimistically entitled, tiptoes along the edge of the night. But the next installation, Ganzfeld, named after a mysterious optical effect first noted by Arctic explorers — who suffered a temporary form of snow blindness as a result of gazing across endless fields of white — is, in this instance, a gloriously blue thrill, full-on and exhilarating.
First, they get you to take off your shoes, so your feet are involved fully in the aesthetic act. Then they make you walk up a slight incline, into a room of perfect glowing azure, where another rectangle of lighter blueness stretches ahead into infinity and has about it some of that crude air of promise you get from an empty cinema screen.
Thus, a physical sensation of uplift prompts and parallels a matching emotional sensation. It’s great audience manipulation.
The last piece, Wedgework V, is the most subtle of all, a return to the darkness in which a complex sequence of glows unfolds before you into an arrangement of ghostly rectangles and their crisscrossing outlines. I wasted plenty of time trying to work out how Turrell does it. Where are the light sources? What sort of light is it? Which of these glows are voids, which are solids? I never did find out. Neither will you. Let’s just leave the final analysis of Turrell to Wordsworth:
“There are in our existence spots of time,/Which with dis- tinct pre-eminence retain/A renovating Virtue, whence, our minds/ Are nourished and invisibly repaired.”
I’m not sure if these excellent observations are, however, any use to us at all when we turn to Sarah Lucas, who has just unveiled a fabulously vulgar display at Tate Liverpool: a progress report on her noisy contribution so far to the YBA story. Where Turrell’s show is filled with divine whispers, Lucas’s display is more of a burp, and some farts, with many a throaty laugh thrown in, and lots of smoker’s coughing. It’s an event that completely lacks the universality of Turrell’s work, and which will only be “got” by those who are au fait with the textures, sights, sounds and emotional decrepitude of modern Britain. With all those provisos in place, however, this too is a fantastic exhibition: a belter.
If Andy Capp were a woman who had been to art school, he would be Sarah Lucas, and he would come up with something like this. Her show is about smoking, drinking, tits, lust, masturbation, bodily fluids, tabloid headlines, football and — ultimately — the unshakeable self-loathing that all the above induce. Only an English ladette would ever have stooped this low to conquer. But stoop she does. And conquer she does.
Doing away with the partitions that usually break up the top galleries of Tate Liverpool, Lucas presents the past decade and a half of her career as a single installation of the various types of artwork she produces: photographs, neon-light pieces, concrete casts, pornographic automatons and dingy installations involving mattresses, cucumbers and buckets.
I am not usually a fan of retrospectives that ignore chronology, but it works really well here: Lucas’s sheer energy is immediately highlighted, and the continuity of her themes is helpfully underlined. She likes to present herself as a morality-free zone, an unjudgmental celebrator of English sexual squalor. But that’s just tough talk. What she really is, and what this show makes absolutely vivid, is an accuser of men. Most of her work is about piggish masculine sexism, and the coarsening effect it has on modern Britain.
For instance, a recurrent feature of her output is works about Spam, tights, cigarettes and GIs. A typical example is Spamageddon, from 2004, in which a set of stuffed tights thrown casually across a chair, as if someone has just had rough sex with them, have been raised on a plinth of Spam tins, next to a discarded GI helmet.
Lucas’s work always begs to have its sly signs and sneaky hints decoded: Spamageddon is surely informed by those sad second world war tales of American GIs and the things English girls were expected to do for some tights, a packet of fags or a tin of Spam.
Rather like Rachel Whiteread, who manages to disguise her poetic nostalgia for the vernacular architecture of the past behind facades of blank modernism, Lucas appears to be lamenting the lot of her mother’s generation, and not just her own.
So, you look into a cardboard box, and there’s a mechanical hand wanking in there. You see a dingy mattress hung with two shrivelled-up fried eggs and a kipper, and it’s called The Spinster. You encounter a self-portrait of Lucas made from cigarettes, and it’s a premonition of death. Thus this brilliant exhibition advertises its vulgarity; and smuggles in its sadness.