Monday 6 July 2015

Trippin’ the light fantastic

Turrell's Quaker roots influence his art

Learning to love contemporary art has let light into my life

I’ve never seen an artwork from one of my favourite artists, James Turrell. I’d love to, but a heavy workload and a light wallet are making it almost impossible to go and see one of his artworks in person, yet I remain an admirer.

In a reverse of the usual pattern, I’ve become more open towards art as the years pass. Youth is a place for the iconoclast, the easy mockery and quick dismissal. The art world of the seventies in a Northern town didn’t help.

There was a stunning museum and gallery in the town centre where I went every week as a child to visit the library inside, pausing by the Foucault’s pendulum before selecting the week’s reading. Afterwards, I’d often just wander around, but the art never did anything for me, it was the overly ornate, too dark and formal Victorian oil paintings and the selection of local dignitaries on the staircases that merely provoked a momentary interest in whom they might have been.                                                                      
There were one or two more modern pieces but it had the heavy feel of a funeral parlour. It may have been a mildly educational collection, but it didn’t inspire.

Later I moved to Edinburgh and found myself making regular visits to their modern art collections, which were far more exciting.

There was the enormous Lichtenstein on the wall, the hyper-real sculptures of American tourists, the nightmares of Max Ernst and many others.

The museum and its grounds provided a place to ponder, a space to allow abstract ideas, thoughts and impressions gather and begin to work their magic. Unencumbered by anything more than piecemeal learning and no artistic talent, the power of art still made itself felt.

Having worked in mountain conservation the next ‘art attack’ I had was with land art. I found Goldsworthy a bit twee but he did give a good income to a friend who built his designs in our traditional skills, such as the cement-free stone walls.

Once again, it was the open spaces of America that provided opportunities that would be more difficult in crowded Europe, but you can look at pictures, watch film and get an idea about these artworks.

Turrell’s masterpiece is the Roden Crater and isn’t yet finished. Turrell uses light as his medium, coming from a Quaker background where light is at the core of their religious expression.

But Turrell uses light as a medium all of its own. Not silly conceptual trickery, but by using sculpture and constructions to frame the sky, allowing the changing light to produce unexpected pleasures.

He used part of a mall in Las Vegas to make a Granzfeld room, one with soft and diffuse light that the mind interprets the experience as a limitless room and produces spontaneous hallucinations, if you get the effects right.

The effect of these, and oh the joy of using light in Las Vegas to provoke awe and wonder instead of tacky neon, is just a side-delight.

Turrell has also produced ‘perpetual cells’ a sort of flotation tank of light, to be used by one person at a time: A Plato’s cave for our times.

But having an open mind to art rewards in many ways, even if it leads you to an artist who uses nothing you can touch to make art that you need to experience, yet have never seen.

But one day I’ll get to Roden Crater.

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