James Turrell’s latest show induces a ‘mind orgasm’ fuelled by far-out colours, but you’ll be lucky to experience it for yourself
First, an apology. I am sorry I am reviewing the James Turrell exhibition at the Gagosian Gallery today.
I should, of course, have reviewed it when it opened a few weeks ago, because that would have given you the chance to get your name down on the exclusive list of people allowed into the show’s most dramatic exhibit — a huge, round, reality-changing light capsule called Bindu Shards, inside which you are treated to a 15-minute psychedelic colour experience that will bring your mind to orgasm. That is what it did for me, anyway. As soon as word of this man-made wonder began to circulate around the art world, people began putting their names down to experience it, and I am afraid all the viewing slots are filled until December 10. My only excuse for not reviewing the show earlier is that there have been too many important exhibitions opening at once. Forgive me.
From the outside, Bindu Shards looks like something you would find on a tour of the Nasa headquarters. A large white sphere, raised on metal legs, it is entered from a functional-looking platform on which a huddle of white-coated scientists organise and monitor your progress. The scientists lie you down on a sliding bed, then insert you gingerly into the furnace, where the colour show begins.
Nothing I write can adequately describe what follows. But here goes. Colours appear. Reds, blues, greens. They mix, they throb, they pulse. Sometimes, as single colours, they surround you and soak gently into you. At other times, as part of a busy colour dance, they dart backwards and forwards across your vision, in and out, first solid, then see-through. Weirdly, these ethereal throbs and glows do not appear to be taking place before your eyes as such, but somehow inside your head. An event that you expected to be purely optical grows quickly into an exploration of transportative psychological states. However long your life has been, I swear you will see colours in here that are new to you. And they will trigger in you new oohs and new aahs.
In the next room, Dhatu is just as transportative, and open to all. Climbing up an imposing ziggurat towards a square opening in the wall, you find yourself inside a cloudy light chamber, at the end of which a second rectangular opening bathes your space in gorgeous pinks and ambers. Looking back, you see that the white room you have just exited has turned a dramatic emerald green. Except it hasn’t. When you get back in there, it’s still exactly the same. The colour changes are all in your mind. Jumping nimbly over your gates of perception, Turrell has gone scrumping for beauty in your brain. In the process, I think he may have discovered your garden of paradise.
Turrell is 67 now, and has been round the block more often than most. But he is one of those genuinely rare artists who grow better as they grow older. A show of 40 years ago may not have differed from the present display in its essential subject matter — light has always been his thing — but in scale, finish and ambition, it would have been a more modest event. You cannot attempt what is attempted here on a student grant.
Ever since he grew up next door to the Mount Wilson Observatory, outside Pasadena, Los Angeles — where so much of the pioneering 20th-century research on sunspots was accomplished — Turrell has been unwavering in his interest in light and our interaction with it. How it works on our brain. Its impact on our emotions. How we actually see it. The third big installation here, Knowing Light, suggests there is also a religious dimension to his quest.
As a practising Quaker, Turrell’s use of coloured light bears comparison with the effect of stained-glass in a gothic church. I won’t labour the point, because Turrell never does, but this is light as a transportative substance that takes us onto a different, more ecstatic plane. Knowing Light, a tall rectangle on a wall lit up with throbbing hues, achieves the most subtle use of colour in the show: what rare and breathtaking combinations of oranges, greys and pinks. But it is the smoky, smudgy, human-sized darknesses gathering at its centre that seem to define the piece. They have such a spectral presence.
Because the show contains much more than Bindu Shards, I feel better about recommending it so belatedly. Indeed, I am tempted to propose that Knowing Light or the sublime Dhatu are actually more profound works: less spectacular, more poetic. But you’ll think me weaselly for suggesting that. A second salvational consideration is that the show might yet be extended until Christmas, and the list of lucky viewers of Bindu Shards expanded accordingly. With that aim in mind, I hereby launch the Waldemar Januszczak Campaign to Keep Turrell Open, WJCTKTO for short. Readers, join me in pleading with the Gagosian to extend the show’s dates. Compared with London’s pathetic Regent Street illuminations, the wondrous light sights on offer at the Turrell show are the aurora borealis versus the glow from a hotel fridge. Come on, Gagosian, give the people what they want. Bring sublimity back to Christmas.
Another show I was unable to review before, but should have done, is Cézanne’s Card Players, at the Courtauld Gallery.
It’s a small display, but a fascinating one, devoted to that curiously untypical Cézanne image of some village old boys playing cards around a table. Cézanne painted a dozen versions of it, some with two card players, others up to five. The Courtauld is fortunate to possess one of the best.
Augmented by fine loans from America and Russia, the show gives us a Cézanne who is less interested in light than usual, and who dwells instead on the sense of eternity that emanates from his village old boys: as weather-beaten as a Provençal church tower, as immobile as the Mont Sainte-Victoire. In these parts, these kinds of men have been playing cards like this for ever and a day. Look more closely at the various versions and you will see that the card players form a kind of human arch, leaning over the table, like the porch of a church, or a pair of hands clasped in prayer. What Cézanne is after, I suggest, a touch timidly again, because it is not a favoured modern opinion, is a sense of holiness. His card players are the secular equivalents of the elongated medieval saints arranged on either side of the cathedral porch in Aix. What we have here is another seemingly progressive artist whose vision is actually driven by an ancient impulse that dares not speak its name any more: religion.