The Texture of Light

Regardless of the language in which it’s described, James Turrell’s light speaks to us at the most primal level. This 2009 YouTube video with English subtitles beautifully captures the spirit of a similar experience I had at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The late Markus Brüderlin leads us through a Turrell Ganzfeld light installation at the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg in Germany, describing this Ganzfeld as a “room of light that has no outlines.” He continues: “ … The climax of this development, of liberating light from its source, and letting it spread freely throughout a room, that’s the essence of James Turrell.”

On a Friday afternoon in August 2013, I sat on a community bench inside The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, waiting to climb a short pyramid of stairs and enter an unknown space filled with unknown light. I came here trying to grasp the essence of James Turrell, the revolutionary light installation artist who speaks of the “thing-ness” of light and whose radical work demands surrender to the evolving and provocative colors of light presented within the powerful presence of space.

I came here chasing ideas of light and how best to share them with a world separated from light’s color-driven wavelengths. But as I quietly waited in a long, narrow room, there was a feeling of marking time at a train station, a feeling that I was preparing to embark on a one-way journey. A feeling that as I slipped on disposable white booties, I might not ever again wear my empty shoes. A feeling that after experiencing just two of seven light installations composing the exhibition “James Turrell: The Light Inside,” I was already hopelessly lost, in a profoundly joyful and sorrowful way.

In the first installation I entered, with effects produced by a computerized, multicolor LED light system, I watched a figure of light take shape. Hues of purple, indigo, and sky blue engulfed me. I felt certain, that if allowed, I could touch the texture of what my mind called an apparition of pulsating, beckoning light. At the entrance for the third installation, two museum docents stood sentry atop pyramid steps, offering forearms to guests as if guiding them through a portal to another world.

Come. Rise. My group ascended the steps. Our white-bootied feet carried us over the threshold, into quivering pink light, into what looked to be a rectangle of color. Room. The word sounded strange, like a definition that had nothing to do with this incalculable space. We stepped into the effect of Ganzfeld, a German word meaning “complete field” and referring to a loss of depth perception, a dissolving of visual boundaries. In his writings, Turrell describes the experience as like stepping into light. There’s no up, no down, no left, no right. One small scuff from a shoe could disturb the sequence of colors. Light spilled evenly across the vast floor, slipping up the curved bottoms of walls, sliding back down from the ceiling, flowing like an endless waterfall.

Curves met as friends, not sharp-angled strangers. We were swallowed by a seemingly limitless field of light.

A woman who entered the room in the group before me stood motionless, facing me, her mouth agape. She stared at me, and beyond me, toward the door’s threshold and space from whence I just climbed, her concrete expression stirring concern that perhaps I was about to be consumed by an unseen wave, or a lion. Turn around, she told me. I turned, slammed by radiant color. Green. Not emerald green, not forest green, not jungle green, not olive green, but green, rich, fathomless, and deliciously knowable, like an original thought, like a fruit first tasted, like a color just invented. Green. The green filled the doorway, like rising smoke. I turned back around, toward the open space. The floor sloped down ever so slightly, away from the doorway, toward a back wall: a pool of ocean-blue light.

My lungs felt full of light, as though they might burst. I longed to stretch my arms high over my head, arch my neck and shoulders, and dive backward into the infinite blue. The light changed, again and again. The green faded, and I wondered if it was ever really there.

Outside the museum, as I walked to my car, I opened my eyes wide to the natural light. I found myself chasing a new idea: I, too, can choose my relationship with light. All light. Light that reveals, heals, and opens my mind and spirit to the global community that surrounds me.

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