ConstellationJames Turrell at Pace Gallery
“My work has no object, no image and no focus. With no object, no image and no focus, what are you looking at? You are looking at you looking.”
In a high-ceilinged exhibition room at Pace Gallery London, three works from James Turrell’s ‘Constellation’ series are on display. The room is empty, the occasional column punctuating the sweeping herringbone floor. Two half-walls project from the back of the room, encasing each of the three works in isolating corridors. The room is dark, lit only by the works: two ellipses, and one circle of LED lights, each enclosed within a shallow space behind frosted glass. Their colours gradually shift: pinks, yellows, violets, greens, and dazzling white reflect in the walls and floors of the booths, intermingling in the dark recesses of the room.
The vertical oval of Pegasus, Medium Elliptical Glass (2019) takes on an impossible, ambiguous depth, as if it is projecting into the room as a physical object, and simultaneously disappearing away from the viewer into an infinite space deep inside the wall. Staring in an intent yet unfocused manner, one’s sense of balance falters. Watching warm shades of peach appear at its edges before steadily enveloping the entire form, the recognition of one’s surroundings, and even what one’s eyes are witnessing, seems to fade entirely.
The works inspire a physical, phenomenological encounter. As James Turrell has said, “My work has no object, no image and no focus. With no object, no image and no focus, what are you looking at? You are looking at you looking. What is important to me is to create an experience of wordless thought.” This experience is similar to staring into the hot, bright centre of a fire or at the vastness of the night sky; it induces a state of contemplation like that of meditation, or the compelling, wordless gaze of a trance.
Along with Pegasus, the central, spherical installation Cassiopeia, Medium Circle Glass (2019), and the oval, horizontally aligned Sagittarius, Medium Elliptical Glass (2019) are on a two-and-half-hour loop. Walking slowly back and forth between each installation produces the effect of experiencing new artworks each time.
The exhibition, running from 11 February – 27 March 2020, is timed to coincide with Los Angeles’s first Frieze. For the event, Pace Gallery and Kayne Griffin Corcoran are presenting a collaborative stand for James Turrell, as part of an ongoing crowdfunding drive for Roden Crater, Turrell’s as-of-yet unfinished magnum opus of 43 years. In the Painted Desert of northern Arizona, inside a dormant volcano’s cinder cone, Roden Crater is intended to be a naked-eye observatory, where the movements of the celestial bodies can be viewed, aligned with openings, corridors, and chambers. When completed, the project will contain 21 viewing spaces and six tunnels. The initial seed funding of the project was granted by Turrell’s long-term patron, Count Giuseppe Panza di Biuno, while more recently, Kanye West has become a major benefactor, having shot the video for Jesus is King at Roden Crater in 2019.
As a piece of modern landscape art, the Crater is perhaps unprecedented in scope, and follows the tradition of monumental architecture built in alignment with the sun, moon and stars, inherent in Mesoamerican temples, Palaeolithic burial chambers, the Pyramids, and Stonehenge. Turrell has said: “I wanted the work to be enfolded in nature in such a way that light from the sun, moon and stars empowered the spaces… I wanted an area where you had a sense of standing on the planet.” Like the light installations of his ‘Constellation’ series, Roden Crater is a work of perceptual art; an effort to produce a sense of our position on the planet, and in turn the planet’s position within space. The ‘Constellation’ works, too, envelop the viewer, their ambiguous depth like the vastness of the cosmos; their illumination like that of a distant star.