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.


Lights! Camera! Philippe Parreno at Park Avenue Armory


When you have a 55,000 square-foot exhibition hall like the Park Avenue Armory, you’ve got a lot of space to play with. French artist Philippe Parreno does so with some very beautiful lighting in a loosely timed exhibition structure that works as a conceptual frame for recent films. It feels like entering the belly of a mechanical, glammed-up 42nd-street-in-the-1950s whale. Neither it–nor that metaphor–are exactly coherent, but at least “H(n)ypn(y)osis” is fascinating to behold. Screens whir and click, pianos tinkle, music becomes drowned in ocean waves or city street noise (literally being pumped in from the outside streets), marquees blink, blinds shut, screens light, and bleacher seating begins its infinitely slow twirl.


Installation view, visitors in front of piano playing itself


Installation view during a lull in activity

Inside this vast space, the visitor is free to move about as he or she chooses. While something of an open-ended system of parts, moments of focus have been clearly selected. When I was there, two child actors entered together, drawing attention as they robotically began identical monologues in opposite parts of the vast hall, reciting dialogues from the perspective of Ann Lee, a Manga character Parreno ‘copyrighted’ years ago (this work is the result of a collaboration with Tino Sehgal). And of course, when the room darkens and a screen lights up, the crowd drifts toward it like a sea of minnows.


The contents of the films and their tone varied–from a realistic meditation of the crowd that mirrored our positions as viewers in the audience to the imagined animated monsters of a young boy in Chinatown. The other films by Parreno on view are an animated manga version of Ann Lee talking to the viewer, a train ride mimicking that taken by the corpse of Robert Kennedy in 1968, and an uncanny reenactment of Marilyn’s life in a suite at the Waldorf-Astoria, which you gradually realize is being told not through her eyes but those of a machine.


Installation view

That machine is the camera, ever-present in the exhibition as a whole. Parreno harps on the apparatus or lens by which the whole smoke-and-mirrors routine of film, and more largely of art, is made possible throughout–for example, in the exposed bulbs and wiring, the mechanical noises, and the simple drama of the lights going up and the show being over.

Up for one more week–through August 2. Make sure to allow yourself two hours to really see all of the different aspects of the exhibition. More images below.


Installation view of video Anywhere Out of the World (2000)


Installation view of film Marilyn (2012)


Installation view of film Marilyn (2012)