“Wordless thought” is how American artist James Turrell has described the experience he seeks to create, suggesting a kind of perceptual knowledge discovered as much through the body as through the mind. This goal underlies even very early works, from light experiments in California in the 1960s to the breakthrough 1980s ‘skyspace’ Meeting that Turrell recently worked closely with MoMA PS1 to renovate. Meeting was the second skyspace that Turrell constructed and the first in the United States. He has continued to work with similar types of ceiling cut outs in the subsequent decades. Turrell worked on Meeting for roughly 6 years, cutting out the original ceiling to make way for the sky and then adapting the room to increase the viewer’s perception of the space until the sky seems to rest directly on top of it. The title and the simple wooden bench that runs around the walls recalls Turrell’s Quaker upbringing. In its original incarnation, Meeting was a simple opening to the sky with modest lighting to create a kind of glowing inner chamber that subtly allowed you to become aware of the changing light and sky. The renovation, unveiled a few months ago, includes a multi-colored LED lighting program that adds a mind-bending flair to the work.
Before, the viewer who was in the room at sunrise or sunset would notice the changing sky as it hung suspended like a flat surface on top of them. Now, a lighting program synchronized with the sunrise and sunset dramatizes such subtle perceptual shifts in sky and interior colors, dramatically changing the color of the sky from pale to dark and warm to cool, through the use of intense LED lights. It feels like a trick of the mind to watch what you know to be the same patch of sky shift through gradations of color. At the same time, it is so subtle that you can’t pinpoint the moment when the color slips from one hue to the next. The incredibly crisp edge where building meets sky and lack of depth markers create the flat appearance of what could be an exercise in geometric abstract painting. The fresh air and the changing colors–whether artificial or in the passing of clouds over the sky–constantly remind your thinking mind that that is not the case.
It’s an experience that is impossible to capture in an image, although many people tried while I was there recently. It’s literally impossible because the room is wider than any one field of vision, but also because the art is located in what feels like a living space that extends out from you into a much bigger world. It requires patience. Around dawn and dusk, an approximately 40-minute light show enhances the changing natural light, ushering in the transition from day to night and night to day. But it requires patience not just to sit through a quiet show of changing lights and marvel at the effects of the sky, but to open yourself up to the experience of looking. Relaxing into the experience and allowing your vision to adjust to it, you become immersed in changing fields of color. Lacking depth perception, the sky which you know to go up and up into space seems to jut into the room like a 3-dimensional shape, or the shaping mechanism of the square cut out seems to shift dynamically into a diamond the recedes or comes forward. The eye tells you that such things are possible even though the mind knows they are not. Such an exchange of perceptual and mental knowledge is perhaps what wordless thought is like: not judging as your perception becomes unlinked from reality and wondering if there isn’t a special kind of knowledge in that.
Meeting is on permanent view at MoMA PS1, weather permitting.