James Turrell’s Meeting at MoMA PS1

James Turrell, Meeting, 1980-86/2016

“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.


James Turrell’s Roden Crater


Site plan of Roden Crater

Although I only learned about the Roden Crater a few weeks ago, this large earthwork has been installation and land artist James Turrell‘s major project since 1974.  His works typically include creating spaces and sensory experiences through an almost tactile manipulation of artificial and natural light. The Roden Crater, an extinct volcano near Flagstaff, Arizona, is being subtly reshaped and fitted with underground tunnels and rooms, some carved with “skyscapes” (openings that frame and seem to shape the sky). This ambitious project is still under construction, and few people have seen it outside models, drawings, and photographs. Turrell has stated that he wants to link visitors with the celestial movements of planets, stars, and distant galaxies, saying: “In this stage set of geologic time, I wanted to make spaces that engage with celestial events in light so that the spaces performed a ‘music of the spheres’ in light.” A lot could be said about this project, but I’m particularly struck by the way the site as a whole resembles an eye.


Roden Crater

The artist has also said: “Roden Crater has knowledge in it and it does something with that knowledge. Environmental events occur; a space lights up. Something happens in there, for a moment, or for a time. It is an eye, something that is in itself perceiving.” With the latter comment in mind, I think it is fascinating to consider how light and knowledge are connected to the eye and the gaze. The crater is in part a naked-eye observatory, on a scale that puts it in dialogue with the heavens even as it reverses the traditional gaze of the all-seeing eye of the Judeo-Christian God who looks down on earth. In art history, this notion has been represented by a tradition of God as a disembodied Eye. From the medieval period onward the eye of God was invoked to represent all-seeing divinity and the Holy Trinity. A form of this symbol where the eye is enclosed in a triangle, often called the Eye of Providence, proliferated and was repurposed during the Enlightenment for secular, man-made knowledge. The power of the much-used symbol stems from the privileging of vision and its association with knowledge. Regardless of whether an eye was literally present, the implicit gaze of religious art in both Western and Eastern Orthodox traditions has been a divine, watching one.


Crater’s Eye Plaza

Considering the power structures implicit in the gaze (at the Roden Crater, a man-made and God-like eye on earth staring up to the heavens) is fascinating not just historically but in today’s surveillance-prevalent society. Ancient monuments such as the Incan and Egyptian pyramids, which Turrell cites as an influence, were scaled for a privileged aerial viewpoint that once belonged only to God. Historically this privileged view became accessible to man through maps, which were once valuable luxury items. Now the aerial view is available to society en masse courtesy of Google Maps and Google Views, reinforcing Foucault’s notion of the surveillance society. While Turrell might seem to be creating a monument along ancient lines, contemporary societies’ changed relation to the aerial view complicates this understanding.


East Portalt

While the site itself features tunnels, rooms, viewing stations, and the crater’s eye plaza already, as well as a small guest house nearby, Turrell is still working on the project. He is 71 years old, and it is unclear whether the project will be finished in his own lifetime. Once it is open, visitors will be restricted to small numbers at a time, but I for one would certainly love a chance to walk through and experience this strange modern megalith.


Crater’s Eye