Expansion illuminates breakthrough perspective of James Turrell

The immense labyrinth of sensory awe that is MASS MoCA grew even bigger at the end of May with the completed renovation of Building 6 – a more than 100,000-square-foot addition. A trip to MASS MoCA surprised visitors with its ability to play the installations against the unique post-industrial aesthetic of the museum complex. Regardless of its distance from the rest of the complex, Building 6 retains that same feeling of being an infinite storage of art.

Since the summer, the main showcase of the new structure has been a collection of James Turrell works from the past 40 years. Turrell is a Los Angeles-born installation artist who seeks to explore, play with and enhance the perceptive experiences of viewers that are exposed to one of his installations and pieces. And does the collection at Building 6 expose visitors to that objective? Yes, oh yes. The only word, both in its noun and verb form, that can be used to describe this exhibit is “experience.”

To the right of the entrance to the exhibit is an introduction to Turrell’s work and vision, which explained, “for Turrell, light is not merely a visual force with almost material substance, but something capable of permeating the body and entire neuro-optical system, ‘a wonderful and magic elixir that we drink as Vitamin D through the skin.’” It would be an oversimplification of Turrell’s work to say that he only wanted viewers to see light as a physical object, devoid of its ephemeral and quick nature, but the gallery presented a larger and more complex theme. In Turrell’s work, light becomes both a question and an answer, a tool for the viewer to understand their own relationship to light, color, darkness and contrast. The viewer had the choice to either connect the exhibit to how Turrell experienced light, or quite easily build their own perceptions.

What makes this ambiguity so apparent yet easy to enjoy is the simplicity of each installation. Pieces of Light (2009-2010) is a series of five tinted mirrors with a different colored light at a distinct angle. Each mirror can only be seen one at a time, and each one produces a unique phenomenon with light. Out of thin air and light, triangles form an ellipse and a polygon. Light appears to have frozen in thin air. Einstein wondered how it would be to ride a beam of light, and Turrell allows us to witness a beam, seemingly frozen, hanging over us.

But if that is too flimsy and fleeting for your taste, Turrell constructed another installation, The Jetsons (Magnetron) (2006), that can be characterized as taking the experience of sitting down and watching cartoons on television and combining it with classic cubism, deconstructing it entirely and giving us an entirely new experience to contrast against the original. The installation is a white room, dimly lit on its sides, with a simple chair in the center and a TV-shaped rectangle cut out from the wall. Colored lights shine from the hole in the wall, switching and changing. The lights bounce off throughout the white, vapory, hollow space beyond the wall. Sticking your head into the hole in the wall reveals that the light inside comes from an actual television, hidden within the wall, playing the classic cartoon The Jetsons over and over. Sit on the chair and all you will see in front of you will be a very abstract collection of lights and colors, packed tightly by the overarching whiteness in the room. Turrell took the experience of TV-watching apart and presented it again in its most basic form: sitting and observing a series of colored light particles.

The two largest installations are the apogee of Turrell’s vision: Perfectly Clear (Ganzfield) and an exhibit on the progress Turrell has made on building a natural observatory at Roden Crater, Ariz., since 1977. Roden Crater is a naturally-made volcanic crater where Turrell is currently developing an installation that places visitors at the right angle and level to look up at the night sky from safely within the crater. The sky will be the only thing visible and envelop the visitor’s view, exposing the natural light of the stars and the moon. Feeling swallowed by a natural skylight is the exact opposite experience of being within Perfectly Clear (Ganzfield). You enter an elevated room, perhaps a thousand cubic yards in volume, painted all white. At the opposite end is what can be called a void, or emptiness, as the mist in the room makes it difficult to describe. Lights along the back wall make the entire room orange, blue, yellow and many other colors. Without warning, these lights begin strobing.

There is nothing in the natural world that can compare to being within that room. A sense of floating, nothingness, feeling color and light as a physical presence and many more vague ideas convey what being in that room feels like. The void in that space can be filled with the tricks your mind plays on you, or those you play on your mind.

To continue attempting to surround these works with sentence fragments is to disrespect Turrell’s talent. Go to the lavishly simple Building 6 and experience for yourself being in front of a beam of light. And, of course, visit the works of other artists – Robert Rauschenberg and Louise Bourgeois match Turrell in creativity and boldness. With this parade of talent, MASS MoCA has assured visitors that the wait for Building 6 was worth it.

MASS MoCA’s expansion doubled the size of the museum, which houses exhibitions from Turrell, Bourgeois and Rauschenberg. Photo courtesy of MASS MoCA.