James Turrell: A Dissent—Part One: Refreshed and Energized: Installation, Subjectivity and the Spa Experience by Maura Brewer

In the catalog James Turrell: A Retrospective, Michael Govan describes Turrell’s ongoing artistic inquiry into the gap between “internal” subjective experience and “external” objective phenomena. This idea manifests in Turrell’s light installations as visual experiments that capitalize on the perceptual instability of color. The blue of the sky, seen through an open window, becomes green, purple, or red depending on a changing set of choreographed lighting effects. The inherent variability of color undermines the fiction of a stable, enduring “external” reality, and the consequences are meant to be revelatory: a transcendent merging of self and other, the act of “removing the distance between the perceiver and the object in order to see ‘truth’…”1

Turrell’s work, according to Govan, speaks to the radical dislocation of the perceiving self. His reading of Turrell hews closely to contemporary and postmodern ideas about the relativity of knowledge, and the instability of the subject position. Govan suggests that Turrell is engaged in the production of a kind of strategic disorientation or disturbance of his audience.2 And to be sure, certain accounts of Turrell’s work conform to Govan’s analysis – his museum retrospective in 1980 ended in several lawsuits when visitors became dizzy, resulting in sprained wrists and broken arms.3

But there is another way to understand Turrell – a reading that has cropped up in the press around his exhibitions in LA and New York. This interpretation deemphasizes the dislocating effects of vision, and focuses instead on a kind of holistic immersion, the ultimate aim of which is a therapeutic re-centering of body and mind. In a recent LA Times article, Deborah Vankin describes her experience in one of Turrell’s full-body “perceptual cells” as “both energizing and relaxing, terrifying and beautiful.” After, she feels “refreshed and energized.”4 If Turrell’s installations take us out of ourselves, they do so in a way that seems more akin to a sensory deprivation tank, or a sauna, or the group meditation at the end of a yoga session. This is art installation-turned-spa-experience, with all the attendant connotations of leisure and luxury.

This rhetorical trend coincides with Turrell’s growing popularity among established collectors, particularly in the Los Angeles area. Turrell has taken to designing his skyspaces for the homes of the very rich, adapting them into multi-use entertainment structures and screening rooms for parties. According to The New York Times Magazine:

Part of Turrell’s skill is to incorporate the lifestyle requirements of his collectors. The Kayne Anderson Capital Advisors chairman and founder Ric Kayne, whose daughter Maggie introduced Turrell to the family, found that he and his wife, Suzanne, could use a skyspace over their outdoor dining area. Turrell came over one evening and sat in their Santa Monica yard. “I told him I wanted the space to be both social and yet could be meditative and experienced by one,” Kayne says. “He proposed three concepts, and I loved them all.” The winning piece can be raised and lowered hydraulically to function as a skyspace as well as a dining area that seats 12.5

The Times views Turrell’s successes in the private art market – dominated by easily saleable paintings, sculptures, and singular objects – as a triumphant (if somewhat mystifying) victory in the face of traditional indicators of economic value. I am not so mystified – the man is building additions onto fancy houses, after all.

However, there is another explanation for his successes in the market; while Turrell’s work may not take the form of an object ready for transport, storage, and eventual resale at auction, this doesn’t mean that it doesn’t conform with the overall ideological imperatives of the market. In fact, Turrell’s installations are in some ways a purer distillation of the market ethos than any singular object could hope to be. Turrell’s economic success can be understood as one aspect of a larger philosophical tendency that goes to the heart of his practice – the transcendent immersion of his light installations and skyspaces operating as total valorization of private experience.

Let’s return to Govan’s text in order to think about the nature of the revelation that Turrell’s work offers. As stated before, Govan characterizes Turrell’s art by claiming that, “Turrell closes the gap between the thing perceived and the perceiving being as he plays with the very act of seeing itself.”6 How does he do this? Govan gives the skyspaces as an example:

…dramatizing the materialization of our own perception… they magically bring the sky we take for granted as being far away into our intimate physical space. There could be no better illustration of art’s capacity to put an otherwise distant truth directly in front of us than the heroic gesture of bringing the sky down to earth for our immediate consideration.7

This “heroic gesture” doesn’t, properly speaking, close the gap between self and other, which implies a nonhierarchical traversal of boundaries, but rather collapses other into self, the entire world reduced to a function of the human mind. The singularity of the self is preserved, and the external world is revealed to be a byproduct of the subject’s gaze.

This way of thinking retreads a familiar Cartesian logic, privileging interior experience over external phenomena, or mind over body. Even as Govan pays lip service to the postmodernist rejection of singular truths, reminding us that “never do we see the world with entirely open and unbiased eyes,”8 he invites us to view Turrell’s light installations as windows into the unmediated authenticity of pure self, a deeper understanding which hinges on “an awareness of how much of our observation and experience is illuminated by the ‘inner light’ of our own perception.”9 Everything is made available to sentience, consumed by the all-seeing “transparent eyeball”10 that is the perceiving subject – even the sky is “brought down to earth, for our immediate consideration.”11

Govan’s metaphysical language dresses up a familiar sales pitch: if you have the money and the inclination, every aspect of existence can be tailored to your needs and desires, the night sky a decorative element in your convertible indoor/outdoor dining room. Roberta Smith calls this effect a “meditative spectacle,”12 and I agree, in the Debordian sense of the word. According to the logic of the spectacle, all relations between inner and outer, self and other, have been replaced by images that are available for sale, and are in fact “the chief product of present-day society.”13 According to Debord, the spectacle speaks in the language of religious contemplation, upholding existing power structures through mythologizing affect. But the spectacle is a “specious form of the sacred,”14 drawing our attention skyward in an elision of the mundane economic brutalities that are its true genesis. It’s time to recognize these “meditative spectacles” for what they really are: the self-centered, narcissistic politics of the very rich.





1. Michael Govan, “Inner Light: The Radical Reality of James Turrell,” in James Turrell: A Retrospective, by Michael Govan and Christine Y. Kim (New York: Presel Publishing, 2013), 14.

2. Ibid., 15.

3. Wil S. Hylton, “How James Turrell Knocked the Art World Off Its Feet,” The New York Times, June 13, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/16/magazine/how-james-turrell-knocked-the-art-world-off-its-feet.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0 (accessed 10 April 2014).

4. Deborah Vankin, “Eyes Wide Open: A Peek Inside James Turrell’s Perceptual Cell,” The Los Angeles Times, March 25, 2014, http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/culture/la-et-cm-james-turrell-perceptual-cell-lacma-20140324,0,3612970.story#axzz2yWmCJYEh (accessed 10 April 2014).

5. Edward Helmore, “Seeing the Light,” The New York Times Magazine, May 9, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2013/05/12/t-magazine/12well-turrell.html (accessed 10 April 2014).

6. Govan, “Inner Light: The Radical Reality of James Turrell,” 14.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid., 15.

9. Ibid.

10. Quoted from Emerson, the American Transcendentalist, whose writing demonstrates similar ideas about light, vision and truth. He says, “I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nature,” in Selected Writings of Emerson, [New York: Random House, 1940], 6.)

11. Govan, “Inner Light: The Radical Reality of James Turrell,” 14.

12. Roberta Smith, “James Turrell Plays with Color at the Guggenheim,” The New York Times, June 20, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/21/arts/design/james-turrell-plays-with-color-at-the-guggenheim.html?pagewanted=all (accessed 10 April 2014).

13. Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, (Brooklyn: Zone Books, 1994), 16.

14. Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, 20.


Please see James Turrell—Part Two: Four Thoughts on James Turrell, or Where is the Body? By Maya Gurantz


  1. Absolutely stunningly to the point. Bring it on…I am totally disgusted with the extremity of consumption in the art system, and wonder when artists who care about the very survival of the world are going to have voice. This kind of work is just Nero fiddling while Rome burns. Enough of these distractions.

  2. Great Maura! As a purveyor of experience based contemporary forms of art making, it is refreshing to have all the cards put plainly on the table. How do we explain to a new generation of artists that while an experience might be just that, a certain level of exchange is always taking place, we are always giving something of ourselves. How do we put into words the forms this make take? I could show them, but I would first need $45 to buy the special ticket or access to a collectors house…


  1. James Turrell: A Dissent—Part Two: Four Thoughts on James Turrell, or Where is the Body? By Maya Gurantz | Notes on Looking - […] Published on April 16, 2014 by Geoff Tuck in Miscellaneous. ← James Turrell: A Dissent—Part One:…
  2. Refreshed and Energized: Installation, Subjectivity and the Spa Experience, 4/16/2016 | Maura Brewer - […] Read the rest at Notes on Looking, http://notesonlooking.com/2014/04/james-turrell-a-dissent-part-one-refreshed-and-energized-installat… […]

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