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This paper examines the artwork and installations of JamesTurrell. It is dividedinto two halves.

Part 1 introduces Turrell the person, looking at formative experiences from his early life that
were influential on his art. A brief section follows introducing the two installations that are
focused throughout the dissertation that I have experienced personally. The main body of Part 1,
explores four key philosophical areas in Turrells work:

form and content

object and subject
the sublime
perception and colour theory
I describe Turrells artwork, the physicality and functionality of it and, in context of the artwork,
artist and audience. As the paper progresses, I develop a concept for Turrells aesthetics and
relate that to other artists and philosophers and exploring the viewers experience of Turrells
artwork in relation to Edmund Burkes empirical study and theory of the sublime. As light and
perception are fundamental to Turrell, I will look at the empirical study of perception and colour
theory of Josef Albers, to understand how we see and what makes our experience.
Part 2 discusses, modernism, postmodernism, spirituality and evolution of art within 3 areas
which expand on Part 1, extracting a deeper meaning of Turrell and his work:
1- Platos cave and coming out of the dark
2- Avant garde and evolution of art
3- Responsibility/purpose of the artist
James Turrell
Turrell, born in born May 6 1943, Pasadena California, started to produce his light installations
in the 1960s after studying psychology and perception BA degree from Pomona College in
perceptual psychology in 1965 and then an MA degree in art from , University of California,
Irvine Claremont Graduate School in 1966. The unique approach of psychology and perception
to become an artist was one key to Turrells success. He stated that it is not possible to get the
proper training in light,colour and perception in a fine art degree. The problems of perception
help form our beliefs of reality.
We teach the color wheel, but we really should speak about the light frequencies of each eye,
and then the context of vision in which they reach the eye, because thats how we perceive. So
I studied perceptual psychology and the psychology of official perception. Turrell, EGG
He grew up in a Quaker family when he practised meditation by, seeing the light within , which
was the advice given to him by his grandmother. He came from a family that flew small

aeroplanes and gliders, this flying time, as well as the sitting meditation, helped form his unique
perception. Whilst flying, Turrell was able to develop his perception through experiencing unique
phenomena, where concepts of reality can be radically altered. He once flew over a lake where,
due to the reflection of the water, and whilst performing roll manoeuvres, it was very hard to tell
the difference between the sky and water. He said,
This is a new kind of perception. Its no different than say, if you become a diver and go into the
sea, and experience that. You get rapture of the deep. You get rapture of the heights. Its
something that does occur. And it is a joy this opening up of perception. Turrell, Interview
greeting the light.
It is no wonder that it led him to pursue a career as an artist dealing with the nature of reality
through perception.
Light installation A personal experience
Amongst other works, I have seen two of Turrells light installations (see plate 14), that were
both very similar artworks. The first was in the Haywood gallery, London in 1993 and the second
in 2010 in the Gagosian gallery, London. On both occasions, experiencing the installation was
very profound for me. I was able to feel, touch and connect with the physicality of the light, as if
the light was stuff, I sensed a change in my perception and this influenced my relationship to
light and space. The installations had a meditative quality, I experienced long pauses without
thought and a sense of joy and connection.
When Turrell creates an installation in a gallery room, the walls, floors and ceiling are prepared
with specially chosen lights. The end result is that it seems you are standing in an infinite space
and the light feels like solid matter. Turrell has excelled technically to set up such an
As a viewer, you are encouraged to allow yourself to surrender to the experience as there is no
form or surface to look at or content to interpret. As Turrell says, you can see yourself see. It is
almost as if you can touch the light with your eyes. His art is about perception, a subjective
mental representation of our visual sensory input. Many would argue that our emotional and
mental stateaffects our overall perception as well. Turrell provides us with a very minimal
This results in an art that is not about my seeing, its about your direct perception of the work.
Im interested in having a light that inhabits space, so that you feel light to be physically present.
I dont want something to be about light, I just want to use light. I want light itself. Turrell EEG
It is the, seeing yourself see and experiencing the light, rather than a reflection of light, (for
example looking at a picture), that makes Turrells work so unique and profound. He is one of
very few artists to achieve such a refinement in the subject of light, to distil its essence, free of
cultural content. He maximises its potential for the audience, so that they have a profound
phenomenological rather than analytical experience. The curator at Turrells Garage Exhibition,
Moscow, comments:

spend time with each work of art. these change, the light in some of these work s actually
changing, but more importantly your eyes and your perception is changing the longer you spend
in them. curator,
The light installations and sky spaces were replicated many times by Turrell, but he has also
produced two other distinct works of interest, Roden Crater and Bindu Shards. Roden Crater
(see plate 5) is near completion after about 30 years of construction. It is one of the biggest
contemporary art project in the world to date and the crater is monumental in size, comparable
to the pyramids of Egypt. It should offer a unique experience in visual perception of natural light
advances his previous works. Turrell team has tunnelled into the crater carving out viewing
chambers that lie just beneath the surface on the inside of the crater. These have openings that
point to the sky, allowing an experience with the subtle light of dawn and dusk, or profoundly,
celestial light. Turrell even succeeded in his application to pass a law, restricting light pollution
within a certain distance of the crater to preserve the quality of light for the viewers experience.
In the first phase of the Roden Crater project, six spaces were completed, including two of the
most difficult, the shaping of the Crater Bowl and the Alpha (East) tunnel. Three spaces: the
Sun/Moon Chamber, East Portal, and the Craters Eye, are joined by the Alpha Tunnel and a
connecting tunnel to the Crater Bowl. The South Lodge on the flank of the crater will provide
overnight accommodation for future visitors as well as a panoramic view of the desert floor and
nearby cinder cones The next space to be constructed is the South Space, (shown here,
above) a space aligned to the North Star that concentrates the viewers attention on the night
sky and provides a panoramic daytime vista of the Painted Desert surrounding the
Bindu Shards, (see plates 10 and 11 ) is ground-breaking, offering a unique experience in art.
The viewer is wheeled inside the capsule into something like an MRT scanner.
The viewer is deprived of sensory stimuli and witnesses a 15 minute coloured light
performance, allowing an experience of behind the eye seeing.Turrells art works with optical
phenomena that test the boundaries of human perception. It plays with the physicality of light
and reshapes how we experience the blurred lines between reality and fiction. His work must be
viewed first-hand to be understood.
Turrells art works with optical phenomena that test the boundaries of human perception. It plays
with the physicality of light and reshapes how we experience the blurred lines between reality
and fiction.what is so interesting about this work is that is about the connection of difference
between the external sceneand internal scene, imagine your last dream this work brings
them together the light is triggering responces inside of your head. Curator, Garage
Exhibition, Moscow.
You may have thought you know the power of light.those images are not there are things that
dont exist ..out there in the real world but what is the real world?..the real world is this world we

assemble by a consensus, remember, realilty is only a consensus and that concensus changes.
James Turrell, Garage Exhibition, Moscow.
Four distinct areas defining Turrells art
1. Form and content
Art critic, Susan Sontag, claims that:
Interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art. Once upon a time (a time when high art
was scarce), it must have been a revolutionary and creative move to interpret works of art. Now
it is not. What we decidedly do not need now is further to assimilate Art into Thought, or (worse
yet) Art into Culture. She concludes that, the very distinction between form and content is,
ultimately, an illusion, Against interpretation, 1966,
Sontags essay, Against interpretation, attacks the approach of reducing art to purely form or
turning art into philosophy. Turrell has created art that is almost interpretable and formless, thus
breaking free of Sontags post-modern malady of interpretation.
Many modern artists went to the extreme of trying to eliminate content altogether with minimalist
or abstract painting, for instance, Jackson Pollocks abstract expressionist paintings eliminated
historical content to make a painting of form. Pollock was championed by modern art critic,
Clement Greenberg for the purity of form in his paintings. The action paintings were created in a
state of meditative flow, where the process became the most important element. Although a lot
of content has been removed, perhaps there still remains content that relates to hidden
emotions and desires in the psyche of the artist. Looking at the colour-field painting by Newman,
(see plate 4) or even more so, a monochrome of Klein, flat and without brush marks (see plate
23), one could argue that it has the least amount of content possible. Its possible to argue that
even colour has psychological content, so in that regard, there is an argument for some content
in Newmans and Kleins paintings or Turrells light installation. If there is content in Turrells
work, it is very superficial.
On the other extreme, many conceptual artists have been eliminating form with all emphasis on
the content. A good example is Yoko Onos Painting for the wind, 1961 (see plate 12), a set of
instructions printed on a paper that reads, Cut a hole in a bag filled with seeds of any kind and
place the bag where there is wind. Here the viewer is presented with only a set of instructions
that are de-personalised by the typed text. All that remains is the concept, content or idea. If any
form is left, it is again superficial.
Turrells installation does something radically different, even forty years later, there are few
artists who have quite managed to eliminate both form and content with any medium, let alone
the medium of light and with the same quality as Turrell. This is mainly because of his technical
expertise and experience. The elimination of form and content might be achieved relatively
easily through the medium of sound by being in a dark room, with a continual monotone of

Turrells work gives us the opportunity to present a strong case to prove Sontags claim that,
distinction between form and, ultimately, an illusion. Turrells installation manages
to remove them both form and content, I also argue that Turrell has managed to make an
artwork where they are not just removed, but are one, or you could say one and also nothing.
Taking Turrells installation, let us consider the physicality of the light as the form, a form of
oneness without parts or disconnections, and the content to be the subjective experience of the
Heideggers theory of being signifies a non-dual experience between viewer and object, and
supports the idea that content and form are one as no seperation exists between the experience
of the viewer and the artwork. This non-dual experience is similar to an athlete in full flow to win
the gold medal or a meditator being able to withdraw from all their senses completely. Both
need effort, or more so, the ability to surrender and relax, letting go of ego and thoughts, but in
saying that, there is the potential of glimpses, or moments or peak experience of this potentiality
as Turrell makes the whole experience as accessible as possible. This is similar to doing
meditation in a sense deprivation tank, where the withdrawal from our senses is made so much
easier. Lack of thought is not a lack of content but actually full of content or nothing, a more
profound content, Gabliks evolution of consciousness, or Shaffers shift in awareness and
magical experience or Kandinskys inner spirit. This potentiality of a non-dual, non-Cartesian
experience where form and content, subject and object and art and viewer become one is
radically profound.
2. Subject and Object
I think therefore I am, pronounced Descartes.
This subject/object dichotomy seems obvious when one is theorizing from within the modern
tradition, in which it has functioned as an axiom since Descartes famously argued that the
subjects access to its own thinking possesses an indubitable immediacy not shared by objects,
which must thus be conceived of as external to subjectivity. Stanford
The Cartesian dichotomy was born and with it came the age of enlightenment, science,
specialisms, modernism and individualism. One problem with regards to art is the duality
between the artwork and the viewer. It seems quite common or normal to pass by artworks
without stopping to really experience them, or even read the commentary first. The artwork may
or may not be appreciated without really engaging it. A theory is that many modern artists, such
as the impressionists and abstract or colour field painters, challenged this by offering an
experience that was quite uncommon to everyday life. To be able to engage in a meaningful
way with the painting meant having to spend more time to experience it.
The philosopher Heidegger in his essay The Age of the World Picture, 1938 saw the subject
object/divide as the heart of the modern capitalist worldview. He developed a theory of
aesthetics with the help of a painting by Van Gogh, A pair of shoes (see plate 13), to
demonstrate a way for art to bridge this gap. Heidegger said, the artwork becomes an object of

lived experience. What Heidegger means by a lived experience is that the viewer becomes one
with the artwork or subjectivity is temporarily gone. This theory is fundamental to understanding
Turrells installations. A loss of subjectivity means we actually become one with the artwork and
this relates to flow, peak experience or meditation as described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
Athletes in sports, all over the world, seek moments like these. The feelings involved are among
the most intense, most memorable experiences one can get in this life. The state they describe
is what we call flow, or optimal experience. Once attained, flow experiences remain etched in
the memory and provide the blueprint for returning to this optimal state. Susan A. Jackson and
Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi, Flow in Sports
Flow happens when we become completely absorbed through an activity. This is common, for
example with top sports athletes, a gymnast aiming for gold in the Olympics who needs to make
no mistakes or a solo rock climber where a mistake through a lapse in concentration would lead
to possible death. Turrell comments:
To feel we are in any way apart from nature is our greatest conceit.. it is my hope to have a
work that in some small way reconnects us to our true nature by gently investigating the nature
of perception within the so called nature that is outside of us. James Turrell, Interview,
fundacion NMAC
Here, Turrell has made an important statement, that complements Heideggers theory of being.
The duality of man and nature is what creates a feeling of separation from whats outside of us,
this can result in feeling isolated and not part of nature. It is belief or thinking that keeps us
separate from the artwork. Turrells art challenges this illusion and reconnects the viewer or
subject with the object or artwork. The subject or viewer with their see yourself seeing self.
This results in an experience of being that reveals the true nature that the veil of reality tries to
conceal from us. Turrell goes on to say with equal profundity,
When we understand our perceptions and how they form the reality of the world which we live,
it is then that the true perceiving or understanding begins. This refers to the idea of seeing
oneself see. To see yourself seeing is to understand perception. This is related to feeling the
light the sensual nature of sensing the pleasure one gets from seeing.James Turrell,
Interview, fundacion NMAC
The profound experience I had in Turrells installations was also present when I visited the
yellow installation by Anish Kapoor, exhibited at the Royal Academy, London in 2010. (see
plates 20 and 21) Although Turrells installation differed from Kapoors Yellow, my experience
was similar. Unlike Turrells installations, Kapoors yellow was constructed as a giant false wall
with a disc shape recess in the yellow painted wall. This made it easier for my eyes to focus on
the space in the recess and then to focus on the whole space in the room. Like Turrells
installations, the space or light was easily perceived as solid and energized.
In Van Goghs painting, A pair of shoes (see plate 13), Heidegger describes how the voids and
background of the painting reveal gestalts when experienced with being. He describes this as
revealing and concealing within the painting. Heidegger states that:

Art is the becoming and happening of truth. and gives supreme importance to being, Does
truth, then, originate out of nothing? In fact it does, if by nothing we mean no more than that
which is not a being, and if a being represents that which is objectively on hand [Vorhandene]
in the normal waya [way of conceiving] being, the merely putative truth of which comes to
light and thereby becomes shattered by the standing-there of the work.Heidegger-aesthetics,
Stansted encyclopedia of philosophy,
Barthes viewer makes meaning is the idea is that the viewers experience makes the artwork.
This is expanded by Turrell and his idea of being is meaning. It is not only the viewer that
makes meaning of the artwork, but the meaning is the experience, of viewer and artwork being
A Cartesian split encompasses a varied but related set of dualities. Mind/body, object/subject,
person/nature, art/viewer, form/content. It is apparent that this set of dualities are closely related
to each other and more so, they are all manifestations of the same duality. We can call this, a
divide of object/subject. It is this duality which Turrell consistently presents the viewer with an
opportunity to experience and transcend, albeit momentarily or for short periods of time, by
having an experience with his artworks. It is also the main spiritual lesson in themeditation
practices of Advaita Vendanta, a non-dual philosophy, as in the philosopher Sri Aurobindo
or western monism philosophers Plotinus, Spinoza, Hegel and contemporary, Ken Wilber. This
point of view within some metaphysics and religions argues for the existence of all things in the
universe as reducible to one substance or reality. Unity is to merge your personal I feeling with a
universal or cosmic I and to transcend a feeling or awareness of separation from everything
else. That is, to realise our non-dual nature. Turrells simple but profound lesson to, see
yourself seeing is a kind of meditation, so I believe Turrells, limitation of-art is in part, a
limitation of our ability to surrender to the artwork and to, truly enter the spiritual realm.
3. The Sublime
For French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, the sublime is a feeling, and yet more than a feeling
in the banal sense, it is the emotion of the subject at the limit.Of the Sublime: Presence in
Question, trans. by Jeffrey S. Librett, Albany 1993,pp.44-48
Turrells installations work through the fears associated with the infinite and the joy of touching
or being with the light, this awe inspiring experience is the sublime. Edmund Burkes empirical
study into the sublime was published in a book called, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin
of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beutiful,1757. From this book, he states Infinity has a
tendency to fill the mind with that sort of delightful horror, which is the most genuine effect and
truest test of the sublime. This influential work and others on the sublime had a profound effect
and influence on art. Many modern artists worked with the sublime from Turner to Rothko to
Turrell. As part of Burkes proof, he saw physiological signs, such as the jaw dropping which
related to profound emotional experiences, similar to the emotions felt when coming close to
being killed or injured. The Sublime is understood as being an emotion and experience more
intense than beauty and combines fear and terror along with joy. This is similar to a sublime
experience whilst diving or flying, Turrell says that in regards to diving and flying, You get

rapture of the deep. You get rapture of the heights. Its something that does occur. And it is a
joy this opening up of perception. Turrells own experience of the sublime comes from flying
and meditation and some mystical experiences:
Well, the kind of experience you were talking about has been very important to me. I think the
descriptions of near-death experience, descriptions of light phenomena in the dream, and in
waking I dont pretend to have a religious art, but I have to say, it is artists who worked that
territory from the very beginning.then once, in Ireland I was coming in a boat, in from Fastnet
toward Whitehall. It was absolutely still. A silver light came about that bathed everything. This
was an experience I had in a conscious, awake state. Greeting the Light, Interview,
This kind of sublime experience can be felt in some degree by the audience experiencing
Turrells work. The more fear or challenging the artwork is to our beliefs of reality, and this
combined with a more intense experience of beauty, the greater the feeling of awe or sublime
will be. The illusion of infinite space in his installations can affect our fears, it is fearful because it
is the unknown, the infinite cannot be fully understood, not at least intellectually. E. Burke, On
the Sublime states:
Another source of the sublime is infinity; if it does not rather belong to the last. Infinity has a
tendency to fill the mind with that sort of delightful horror, which is the most genuine effect and
truest test of the sublime. There are scarce any things which can become the objects of our
senses, that are really and in their own nature infinite. But the eye not being able to perceive the
bounds of many things, they seem to be infinite, and they produce the same effects as if they
were really so.
The sublime can be categorised into a simplistic linear model of sublime artwork. A Turner
painting or similarly, the painting by Thomas Cole, Cora Kneeling at the Feet of Tamenund,
1827 (see plate 17), could be at the bottom of the scale and at the top, an experience like
standing on the edge of an overhanging cliff face with a very real fear of death whilst witnessing
an immensely beauty sunset. Within this scale, I would put Turrells installation somewhere in
the upper limits of sublime art. Subjective to the individual are different fears and senses of
beauty so it is possible that someone experiences the most intense feeling of sublime whilst
viewing a Turner painting. Turrell says:
It is possible for an experience in the physical realm to deliver us up to a sense of the spiritual,
but to truly enter the spiritual realm we must leave the world of the senses. This speak to the
power of but also the limitation of art. EGG
Here Turrell very humbly notes the limitation of his art, but also the power of it leads us to the
spiritual. Meditation is the common way to leave the world of senses, requiring the withdrawal
from the senses where one can, enter the spiritual realm. Barnet Newman, the colour-field
painter in his essay, the sublime is the now?, talks of the power of the now or the experience
as a nessesary component of the sublime. He removed content from his paintings and this
leads you to a now-experience, similar to Heideggers theory of being. Newman comments:

old standards of beauty were irrelevant: the sublime was all that was appropriate an
experience of enormity which might lift modern humanity out of its torpor. The sublime is
now, 1948, Tigers Eye 1.6 (1948): 51-3.
Rothkos spiritual, meditative and sublime experience whilst painting and also the viewers
sublime experience is highlighted by Rothko,
The fact that people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I can
communicate those basic human emotions.. the people who weep before my pictures are
having the same religious experience I had when painting them. And if you say you are moved
only by their color relationships then you miss the point.
Nantes Triptych, is a video installation by Bill Viola, I saw in 1996, Tate Gallery, London. (see
plate 16) It shows the potential of the sublime in video works. The experience of viewing the
child birth and mother dying simultaneously in the video aroused a deep sense of fear and
beauty associated with the sublime.
the viewer is forced to confront extreme experiences, such as birth and dying, which takes them
to the limits of our emotional, cognitive (we do not know what it is like to die) and linguistic
experience (where the only responses to such events are anterior to language, such as the cry).
Bill Viola and the Sublime, Rina Arya,
4. Perception and colour theory
We only see a tiny percentage of light, or the visible spectrum, its portion of the range of
wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum is (from 770 to 390 nm) thus, our visible
perception is a fraction of that reality. That what we see and perceive as solid is about 99.9%
The volume of the hydrogen atom then is about 6.24 X 10-31 cubic meters. The single proton
that makes up the nucleus of the hydrogen atom has a volume of about 4.19 X 10-42 cubic
meters. Hydrogens single electrons volume is approximately 9.2 X 10-44 cubic meters. If we
compare the sum of the volumes of the electron and the proton to the volume of the entire
hydrogen atom, the proportion of that atom that is empty space is
And so what we think of as space or nothing is full of matter and visa versa. What happens
when we see? only about 20% of the light that reaches the retina actually registers in the
photo-receptive rods and cones. The rest is simply unseen. Paul Zelaski, from book, Colour.
Colour and light.
Turrell even challenges our cultural relationship to colours. For example, red is often seen as a
hot colour and blue a cold colour, but in fact red light has less energy than blue or violet which
are the warmest. This is due to a shorter wave length. Red flames are also cooler than blue

flames. Another miss-perception is that a black surface is commonly seen as being devoid of
colour, whereas in fact, black has absorbed all the colours so is full of colour. Turrell states:
There also exists prejudiced perception. There are ways that we perceive that have been
learned. For instance, we see red as warm and blue as cold when the opposite is true. Within
the actual limits of our perception there are these anomalies of prejudiced perception or ways to
perceive that limit us. Sometimes it is the artists business to remind us that the ways we have
unintentionally learned to perceive may be limiting. Interview, Greeting the
Light, 1999,
Perception remain much a mystery and although there are many theories, we know relatively
little on how we perceive and what we see. The colour theorist and painter Josef Albers, who
worked with the interaction between the object, eye and brain, was able to find conclusive
empirical evidence to show that we see visual colour phenomena in common ways. That is
through his classes over many years, the students observed and repeatedly created optical
illusions with transparent colour paper with objective results. Everyone saw the same illusions,
or colour phenomena, although not exactly the same as each other. In a typical experiment two
different squares were made with the same colour in the middle, each with a different coloured
border. The result was that the two middle squares were perceived as different colours by
everyone, or one darker than the other even though they are the same colour. (see plate 9)
This prejudiced perception is common to all and that means that there is some objectivity in how
we perceive or see. Turrell used this to good effect in many of his ganzfeld works. The ganzfeld
effect describes how we see off white as white, a simple example is a white wall with the added
colours from the reflected light of surrounding objects or pictures. It seems that an adjoining
colour such as in Turrells sky spaces changes colour, (see plate 15) when it is in fact the white
ceiling subtly changing colour. Albers states:
Experience teaches that in visual perception there is a discrepancy between physical fact and
psychic a consequence, this proves for the reading of colorwhat counts is not the
what but the how. Interaction of color, 1963
This is exactly what Turrells work is doing, it is challenging our beliefs of reality and questioning
the fundamentals of our perception: with this imperfect sensing we construct the reality within
which we live. It is part of art to make us awake to this process. Turrell, Interview, fundacion
To understand how perception can deceive us and its limits, it is necessary to try to understand
the nature of perception, Turrell with his experience in flying said,
So you actually learn not to trust how we have learned to perceive. Pilots actually have to do
this, especially for instrument flight. Night flight is like flying in an ink well. When you get away
from the city, and you have no horizon the little dots of light from the farmhouses can, at times,
look like the stars. You can really get confused. Greeting the light, an interview interview,
Richard Wittaker,

Lastly it is important to understand that there are cultural variances in perception, this at times
may be superficial, but at other times this difference could be substantial. Turrell states:
There is that experiment where a window is made to appear in perspective, so it looks like a
trapezoid, and then its put on a stick against a very flat background evenly illuminated, and a
few feet away and then its rotated. We cant tell whether its going back and forth, or whether
its going fully around. Our guessing is less than fifty percent correct. But then, for this
experiment, so-called primitive people, both in New Guinea and in Africa, were tested, and they
were unable to see the illusion. They were only able to see what was actually happening. When
it was spinning, they saw it as spinning, and when it was going back and forth, thats what they
saw. Interview,Greeting the Light, 1999,
This experiment which Turrell talks about shows the potential for radically different culturally
learned perception. Perception has some universal properties and also culturally learned ones
and it can be very limiting and often, very little understood. The impressionist painter Monet
studied and painted the Rouen Cathedral dozens of times (see plates 7 and 8), positioning
himself to paint every time from the same window which led him to be able to see an array of
different colours that the church appeared in different light conditions. This was a study on
Ganzsfield. The significance of our defective and culturally learned perception is summed up by
Turrell, Reality is only a consensus and that consensus changes.Garage Centre, Moscow,
In Part 1 the originality and contribution of Turrells art has been explored in respect to the four
areas of form and content, object and subject, the sublime and perception and colour theory.
Part 2 discusses Turrells art in relation to modernist and postmodernist perspectives as well as
spirituality and evolution of art. It does this within 3 areas :
1- Platos cave and coming out of the dark
2- Avant garde and evolution of art
3- Responsibility/purpose of the artist
1. Platos Cave Layers of perception
Turrell has used Platos Cave allagory several times in his interviews to explain the importance
of the subject matter of reality in his work. (see plate 1) In The Republic Plato relates a
discussion between Socrates and Glaucon about perceptions of reality. A group of prisoners, it
is imagined, are chained to a wall and compelled to gaze at a wall in front of them. Behind the
prisoners there is a large fire. Between the fire and the prisoners is a raised walkway along
which people walk carrying various objects. The prisoners see only the shadows cast upon the
wall in front of them by the fire. Plato goes on to say:
And now look again, and see what will naturally follow if the prisoners are released At first,
when any of them is liberated and compelled suddenly to stand up and turn his neck round and

walk and look towards the light, he will suffer sharp pains; the glare will distress him, and he will
be unable to see the realities of which in his former state he had seen as the shadows And
you may further imagine that his instructor is pointing to the objects as they pass and requiring
him to name them, will he not be perplexed? Will he not fancy that the shadows which he
formerly saw are truer than the objects which are now shown to him?
Turrell, moved by Socrates dialogue with Glaucon and its implication for perception and the
perception of reality writes:
I make spaces that apprehend light for our perception, and in some way gather it, or seem to
hold it. So in that way its a little bit like Platos cave. We sit in the cave with our backs to reality,
looking at the reflection of reality on the cave wall. As an analogy to how we perceive, and the
imperfections of perception, I think this is very interesting. Turrell, greeting the
Reality, as related by Platos Cave allegory and explored by Turrell is layered moving from
shadowy shallow to deep. The Cave analogy is important to understanding Turrells work
because people are generally not aware of the limitations of their perceived reality as was the
case with the prisoners. Turrell has reversed the Cave allegory: walking down the street
becomes the charade, and entering his light installation becomes the coming out of the cave
and perceiving a deeper reality.
2. Avant garde and evolution of art
That idea that the evolution of art happens through the avant garde is as logical as the evolution
of technology and science happening at an exponential rate. What was a seemingly linear rate
in history as in the cart to the train over millennia has become exponential over the past two
hundred years as in the train to the space shuttle. The evolution of art accelerated with
impressionism, because of the essential technological help, largely through the invention of flat
brushes, paint in tubes and train transport which allowed the impressionists to travel around the
countryside to paint scenes in plein air. Turrell is a modern day impressionist, an avant garde
artist who along with other contemporaries are I believe exerting an influence in the change of
human consciousness.
Turrell fits into Greenbergs case for the avant garde and the specialisms of modernism,
Greenberg comments:
The avant-garde poet or artist tries in effect to imitate God by creating something valid solely on
its own terms, in the way nature itself is valid. Content is to be dissolved so completely into
form that the work of art or literature cannot be reduced in whole or in part to anything not
itself. Avant-Garde and Kitsch, 1939,
Turrells art is also post-modern, crossing many areas and transcending the traditional
boundaries of art, landscape and architecture as in Krauss expanded field model.(see plate 2)
Krauss states:

Because as we can see, sculpture is no longer the privileged middle term between two things
that it isnt. Sculpture is rather only one term on the periphery of a field in which there are other,
differently structured possibilities.Sculpture in the Expanded Field (October, spring
Media and especially advertising exert a huge influence on society. Two dimensional art, fine art
such as painting and printmaking are struggling to command the same potency and level of
appreciation that they had historically. Interestingly, this is in part because of the overwhelming
quantity of imagery that is constantly presented to us from bill boards to magazines, television
and the internet. Jean Baudrilard states:
Everywhere one seeks to produce meaning, to make the world signify, to render it visible. We
are not, however, in danger of lacking meaning; quite the contrary, we are gorged with meaning
and it is killing us. Simulacra and Simulation, 1985
Because of our repetitive and conditioned habit of looking at these images, this has had a
detrimental effect in how we view or experience art. We can call this habit of looking as doing
and so, we can also call the experience of Turrells installation as non-doing as in the Taoist
concept of Wu wei, to partake in a experience which is not usual to our daily lives. This process
of non-doing expands our perception, whether, in a Turrell installation, a Monet painting or
looking at the pattern of the sky between the clouds as opposed to the clouds themselves.
We live in a society rich with predominantly modern architecture, a very practical and functional
use of interior space, but almost totally devoid of any aesthetics. This is in opposition to a
classical Greek architecture when beauty was an integral element of the building through
proportions and geometry. (see plates 3 and 24) Before the arrival of the art object, people
visited religious buildings which offered a spiritual experience. Art was experienced in their
everyday lives, consciously or subconsciously, rather than looking at a painting or sculpture.
There are many examples of great architecture that have so much potential to inspire, such as
grand religious architecture with huge domes or spires which can promote a feeling of the
infinite of our connection to the cosmos or to a spiritual dimension. A building such as the
Parthenon in Rome (see plate 24), has many similarities to Turrells sky spaces. (see plates 15
and 19) Turrell has avoided the use of any objects, he uses architectural spaces, but in the case
with the light installations, he fills them with light creating the illusion of no architecture, just
boundless infinite space filled with light that seems solid. Krauss theory of the, expanded field
(see plate 2), describes the shift of artwork from the sixties that eroded the traditional art
boundaries,art, architecture, landscape and audience. Other artists such as Richard Long were
pioneering in this field (see plate 6). Turrell has further expanded the expanded field through
the addition of viewer or subject so that the viewers experience becomes part of the art and the
viewer can also become part of the landscape and/or architecture.
Contemporary philosopher and art critic, Danto has a theory that the history of art will end or at
least will radically change with the plurality of art:

There is an era of imitation, followed by an era of ideology, followed by our post-historical era in
which, with qualification, anything goes.. . .In our narrative, at first only mimesis [imitation] was
art, then several things were art but each tried to extinguish its competitors, and then, finally, it
became apparent that there were no stylistic or philosophical constraints. There is no special
way works of art have to be. And that is the present and, I should say, the final moment in the
master narrative. It is the end of the story. Danto. A, Hegels end of art thesis, 1999
Dantos theory of the end of art history, points to the potential of a new art without the shackles
of the past. Pluralism, subjectivism and the Sontags revenge of the intellect have tried their
best to eradicate the modernistic avant garde and specialisms within fine art. Fortunately the
avant garde continues through artists such as Turrell. With regards to the problems of pluralism,
Gablik states when art can be anything, it becomes nothing. Artists with a combination of
technical expertise and artistic vision are needed if art is to continue to evolve and continue to
posses a power to inspire and a force for change. Art will continue to synthesis the differing
styles and eras of art in order to keep evolving and continue to be a prophetic force. art is the
becoming and happening of truth. Heidegger. Although Turrells work breaks free of historical
shackles, it also continues traditions though its stylistic and specialism of modernism. The
subject matter of Turrell, that of reality and perception is least as old as philosophers such as
3 Responsibility/purpose of the artist
Turrell is a clear example of a spiritual guide rather than a modernist hero, an artist who fits into
the point of Kandinskys triangle, an artist who is evolutionary, avant garde, prophetic and
visionary. The triangle succeeds in presenting an accurate model for the nature of the artist and
art within the wider context or society. Expanding on this model, it is logical that over time as
human consciousness evolves with the help of art, the triangle base would decrease in size,
shifting an ever increasing proportion of artists and society towards the apex. This signifies an
evolutionary shift in collective understanding and consciousness.
The life of the spirit may be fairly represented in diagram as a large acute-angled triangle
divided horizontally into unequal parts with the narrowest segment uppermost. The lower the
segment the greater it is in breadth, depth, and area.
The whole triangle is moving slowly, almost invisibly forwards and upwards. Where the apex
was today the second segment is tomorrow; what today can be understood only by the apex
and to the rest of the triangle is an incomprehensible gibberish, forms tomorrow the true thought
and feeling of the second segment
In every segment of the triangle are artists. Each one of them who can see beyond the limits
of his segment is a prophet to those about him, and helps the advance of the obstinate whole.
Concerning the Spiritual in Art, 1911
If an artist reflects their own search and understanding of reality through their art then that art
has the potential to have a great influence on society and the evolution of consciousness.
Kandinsky and art curator, Alastair McIntosh concur :

Kandinsky states:
If the artist be priest of beauty, nevertheless this beauty is to be sought only according to the
principle of the inner need, and can be measured only according to the size and intensity of that
needthat is beautiful which is produced by the inner need, which springs from the soul.In
the process of evolution, some human beings have developed a deep and powerful prophetic
strength and a secret power of vision; those advanced souls point the way to
others. Concerning the Spiritual in Art,
1911, This is furthermore summed up
by McIntosh, For Kandinsky, the improvement of the world and the human condition is the
purpose of art. That improvement can result only from an increase in self-awareness, that is, an
increase in spirituality. govan interview.
If we give the definition of art as having a benevolent purpose, from a spiritual or social
perspective, any art which isnt beneficial to society, which is deeply cynical, pessimistic or
nihilistic is not art but rather, a pseudo-art or Kandinskys poison, and is dangerous in the
influence it exerts. As various artists, philosophers and critics state:
Amy Olds comments, when we see cynicism even in our art, it reinforces our belief in a
negative, cynical reality.pp.28, The artwork, Plaster Surrogates by Allen McCollum, (see plate
18) is a perfect example, Gablik says,on closer scrutiny, McCollums paintings reavel
themselves to be simulacra. Mcollum says, Im just doing the minimum that is expected of an
artist and no more. Im trying to orchestrate a charade. All quotes form Gablik. S, The reenchantment of art, 1991
Kandinsky goes further to say how an artist should be:
The artist has a triple responsibility to the non-artists: (1) He must repay the talent which he
has; (2) his deeds, feelings, and thoughts, as those of every man, create a spiritual atmosphere
which is either pure or poisonous. (3) These deeds and thoughts are materials for his creations,
which themselves exercise influence on the spiritual atmosphere. The artist is not only a king,
as Peladan says, because he has great power, but also because he has great duties.
Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, 1911
Art is never in isolation, the artist and thus art has a pure or poisonous influence according to
Kandinsky. It exerts an influence and so can never be just art for arts sake, art has a social
responsibility. Much art has fallen into Heideggers aesthetic trap of subjectivity, and worse still it
is a part of the problem which, in its worst manifestation is, enframing, Heideggers quote is a
warning of a Cartesian subjectivity or the object/subject divide which turns into enframing :
Subjectivism somersaults beyond itself in our late-modern age of enframing because the
impulse to control everything intensifies and accelerates even as it breaks free of its modern
moorings and circles back on the subject itself, turning the human subject into just one more
object to be mastered and controlled until the modern subject becomes just another latemodern entity to be efficiently optimized along with everything else.aesthetics feeds back into

subjectivism in a way that leads subjectivism beyond itself and into something even worse
than subjectivism. Stanford Encyclopedia, Heideggeraesthetics
The subject as an object for utilisation works in harmony and to the needs of the capitalist
machine. Heidegger and Turrell thus conclude:
Aesthetic experience is the element in which art dies. Turrell concurs, some people dont pay
that price of admission with contemporary art. They look at it, as opposed to entering it, or
looking into it..Its a little bit like when youre reading a book and people pass through the
place where you are reading, you dont notice them because youre really in a space generated
by the author, more than in the space where youre sitting and reading. This price of admission
youve paid to enter, by giving yourself over to the story, needs to be done with art as well.
Greeting the light, interview.
To sum up the purpose and responsibility of a conscious artist, Suzy Gablik says in regards to
re-constructivist artists such as Turrell:
They are prototypes who embody the next historical and evolutionary stage of
consciousness.but also to the recovery of both a meaningful society and a meaningful art.
The re-enchantment of art, Gablik. S, pp. 182
Turrell has credibility as a philosopher, not just an artist, and his artworks are empirical
experiments that have taken Albers colour studies and findings to the three dimensional plane.
Turrell, through his experiments in perception, has made a serious case for answering the
profound philosophical question, what is reality?
Turrells art is about seeing yourself see, it is free from Sontags cultural content and
intellectual interpretation. The tradition of specialisims within modern art is furthered by Turrell
and his goal of eliminating form and content so what is left is profoundly, nothing. Heideggers
being is essential in experiencing turrells work as his work breaks down many dualities that
form the beleifs and consensus of our reality. Although his work is extremely profound, all that is
required from the viewer is the simple act of letting go, to experience, to see yourself see, or to
surrender. His artwork is limited by the extent of the fear and beauty felt in the viewer, as the
works can, and often will give a feeling of insecurity and pain as is described by Socrates about
the prisoners leaving platos cave.
I agree with Turrell and Newman that art and the sublime are vehicles to the spiritual,
demonstating the power and also, limitation of art. Its important that artists like Turrell are
making art about the nature of reality that we generally dont perceive or beleive in, for as long
as this isnt challanged, art cannot realise its potential. Avant garde arts purpose is to work in
this field, to illuminate, to be prophetic, it is the duty of artists to challange our mis-perceptions
and understandings of reality.

The nature of reality is being explored today with Turrells installations as it was two thousand
years ago within the philosophy of Socrates and Plato and the cave allegory. The impressionists
offered a paradigm shift, a leap in consciousness as to our perceptions and the nature of reality
and now Turrell and other artists working in a similar way are offering a new paradigm shift with
equal profundity. Turrell demonstrated Heideggers belief that art is the becoming and
happening of truth. In a prophetic sense, Turrells work is destined to be influential for some
time to come.
Exhibitions Primary reaserch
Anish kapoor, Royal Academy, London, 2010
James Turrell, Hayward gallery, London, 1996
James Turrell, Gagosian Gallery, London, 2010
James Turrell Deer Shelter, Yorkshire sculpture park, 2011
Albers. J, Interaction of color, 1963,Yale University Press, New York
Burke. E, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful,
Csikszentmihalyi .M, Creativity, Harper perennial, 1997, New York
Csikszentmihalyi .M, Flow: The Psychology of optimal experience, Harper perennial, 1990, New
Dore, Ashton, about rothko, 1983, Oxford University Press, London
Gablik. S, The re-enchantment of art, 1991, Thames and Hudson, London
Gablik. S, has modernism failed, 1985, Thames and Hudson, London
Heidegger. M, Basic Writtings, 1977, Harper and Roe, London
Turrell. J, 2009, Fundacion NMAC, Milan
Zelanski. P and Pat Fisher. M, Colour, 1989,The herbert press, London
Academic Papers
Barthes, R, Death of the author,
Baudrillard. J, Simulacrum and simulation, 1981,
Danto. A, Hegels end of art thesis, 1999,
Greenberg. C, Avant-Garde and Kitsch, 1939, Partisan
Kandinsky. W, Concerning the Spiritual in Art,
Krauss. R, Sculpture in the Expanded Field, 1979, October, Vol. 8. Spring,…
Newman. B, The sublime is now, 1948, Tigers Eye1.6 (1948): 51-3.

Sontag. S, Against interpretation, 1966,….InterpretationSontag.pdf

Arya. R, Bill Viola and-the-sublime,
Web sources
Heidegger-aesthetics, Stansted encyclopedia of
Postmodernism, Stansted encyclopedia of
EGG interview with James
Greeting the Light: An Interview with James Turrellby Richard Whittaker, Feb 13,
James Turrell interview,
James Turrell at Garage Center for Contemporary Culture, Moscow,