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The first time that I was in a work by James Turrell was in the patio of Clairemont College, one autumn evening. The sky turned red and the architecture blue. An hour went by. The sky turned violet and the columns red.
This season, from the month of May until April next year, the LACMA is dedicating an extensive retrospective to this classic of North American art. The show is a detailed display of the different phases through which Turrell’s work has passed. The earliest pieces like Afrum (White), 1966, sit alongside recent ones like Light Reignfall, 2011. In between a multitude of drawings, holograms and light installations, as well as documentation about Roden Crater, the celestial observatory that the artist has been constructing in the Arizona desert for the last four decades.
As well as those that trace the chronology, there are two other pivots in the exhibition. Perceptual Cell and Dark Matters confront the public with the nude experience of the visual. The installations take control of the body, reducing the visitor to being just an eye, proposing vision as an elementary state. In the first, one enters into a spherical chamber lying on a sort of stretcher. Inside a programme of blinding lights forces one to see. In the second, seated on a chair, the complete darkness denies my body the possibility of this experience.
Illumination, revelation, contemplation. For Turrell the observation of light has a mystical meaning that also refers, in line with American transcendentalism, to how we know the world. He forces us to see it face on or to imagine it in the dark. By day, by night or at dusk, Turrell prepares spaces, so that the light dawns.
"A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world" (John Le Carré)