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James Turrell is one of the most important artists in the world dealing in light and space. He looks like a well-combed cross between Grizzly Adams and Karl Marx and has an aura of a man who has found his place in the fabric of things. He is in the German town of Wolfsburg (home to the Volkswagen car and an hour’s train ride from Berlin) for the opening of a new exhibition of his work.
Born in Los Angeles in 1943, Turrell studied mathematics, psychology and sensory synesthesia as well as art at university. He flies around the desert in little planes and has devoted the best part his working life to turning a volcano into a piece of land art.
As a pilot, Turrell has witnessed some of nature’s greatest artworks in the sky and says they were his inspiration for his art: ‘The spaces you encounter during flight can be amazing: meeting the dawn or watching the Aurora Borealis' he says and describes an experience of taking off once at dawn and seeing the sunlight trapped between ground fog below and cloud cover above. ‘Everything was completely orange’ he remembers, ‘and there was a trail from a jet taking off that cast a shadow in blues and greens. I thought: “That’s nice, I’d like to make that”’.
Turrell is best known for his two main categories of installation work. His ‘skyscapes’ are where he creates or manipulates spaces from which to observe sections of sky. They can be quite disorientating or transcendental, depending on weather or time of day.
The largest and most famous of these is his vast ongoing project in an extinct volcano, the size of Manhattan island, in the Arizona desert called ‘Roden crater’. Turrell’s other main type of work are his interior light tunnels, projections and Ganzfeld (whole field) pieces which saturate interior space with light in such a way as to make the viewer feel they are immersed in it.
‘Usually we just use light to illuminate things, but I like the “thingness” of light’, he says by way of explanation. ‘This idea of the luminous filling emptiness, like there is something there to touch is also something I like to work with’.
The high point of the Wolfsburg exhibition is a huge new installation – the largest Turrell has even built inside a museum. Entitled ‘Bridget’s Bardo’, it is a Ganzfeld piece but relates directly to the Roden crater in that it is intended to be an inversion of it. It deals with inner rather than outer space as well as artificial rather than celestial light.
Bridget’s Bardo occupies 700 sq m of floor space and is 11m high. The result of some highly complex technical wizardry with the help of Austrian lighting company Zumtobel, it has two interlocking spaces: a ‘viewing space’ and a ‘sensing space’, both entirely empty yet saturated with a diffused, slowly shifting spectrum of coloured light.
The viewer, (participant is perhaps a better term) enters the installation from above via a steep slope and walks down into a palpable bath of light. It is an extraordinary experience, something between sensory deprivation and a kind of LED-induced Nirvana. The colour, shifting from blue to grey to orange, pink and then red is defined within the space but seems infinite at the same time. Other figures within the space become silhouettes floating within it and perspectives become strangely distorted.
Bridget’s Bardo is a subtle play of light and space that comes pretty close to Turrell’s ambitious aim of calling down the sky from the heavens. For a quite reasonable fee you can also rent the space for an hour at a time from the museum and experience what must be the best ‘chillout’ zone this side of the Northern Lights.