Wednesday, October 16, 2013

A Cell for All Perceptions



Over the course of this year, I've had a couple of primers to my visit to the James Turrell retrospective at LACMA: my first skyspace experience at the Sheats-Goldstein Residence, and my first foray into a perceptual cell at the Kayne Griffin Corcoran Gallery (which also has its own skyspace).

I knew what to expect when I went to LACMA today. After all, I'd had to reserve months in advance, and pay a not-so-cheap fee to get in.

I knew what to expect.

At least, I thought I did.



Like the smaller Kayne Griffin Corcoran exhibit this summer, the LACMA retrospective includes some scale models, architectural drawings, and concept sketches for Turrell's works, many of which are custom-built (since it's easier to build a room with a planned aperture in it rather than cut a hole into an existing building). Additionally, it also includes some nice examples of his works that have been relocated, donated or otherwise acquired from other places, like the Afrum (White) from 1966 (top) and Juke (Green) from 1968 (above).

And then there is the perceptual cell.

At Kayne Griffin Corcoran, I'd chosen the "soft" experience in the Meditation Room, which leaves the viewer bathed in gentle washes of color with an occasional flicker. Having that under my belt, today I was inclined to try the "hard" experience in the perceptual cell known as Light Reignfall, urged on and reassured by two technicians in white lab coats, who I addressed as "Doctor" upon arrival. And true to my joke, they pulled a drawer-like medical table out of a spherical pod, told me to leave my belongings (including my shoes) in the bucket, gave me headphones for my "soundtrack" and a panic button for easy exit, and slid me back in through a narrow trap door as they wished me good luck.



Upon my elevated, sliding bed, it didn't feel like I was in a room. It felt like I was floating in space.



The perceptual cell experience - this one is specifically a "Gaswork" - started off as expected, solid colors rotating and shifting between blue and red and green and pink and all the transitional shades in between. Surrounded by saturated light. I took my glasses off to improve my peripheral vision and reduce distraction from the frames. But I could still see my nose between my eyes. I held my hand up in front of my face to focus, to remind myself that I was not going blind.

And then it got freaky.



Part of the genius of these perceptual cells is that their experience cannot be captured on camera. They must be seen with one's own eyes, with one's own brain. The strobing light patterns, with their increasing freneticism, simply confuse the lens. The camera tries to capture a moment in time, but the show is about the progression of sound and light in time. And depending on the eye and the brain that sees it, every experience is different.

And in the case of Light Reignfall, like the MRI it imitates, it must be experienced alone. (Meditation Room is built for two.)

I found myself grateful for the multidimensional fractal patterns that appeared before me, giving me something to watch and reminding me that I was, in fact, not blind. I wondered how much I was actually seeing and how much was an optical illusion, a phantom artifact of my brain trying to make sense of the thing, perhaps creating patterns where there were none. I saw black mixed in with hot pink, white, and yellow. Geometric shapes moved in a sometimes symmetric, sometimes kaleidoscopic symphony. Something buzzed in my right ear as a flicker of white interrupted the pattern in my right eye.

I felt a heavy weight on my chest and down to my rib cage, where I'd rested the panic button that I desperately did not want to push, no matter how claustrophobic or epileptic I might get. I breathed heavily and deliberately. I felt I was moving towards the light, or perhaps the light was advancing on me. I don't remember blinking. If I'd closed my eyes at all, I probably would have seen the same as when they were open. I have no sense of how long either of my eyes were open or closed during my ten minutes inside the cell.

As the show ended, the colors desaturating into a pale blue, the light waning, I thought I saw everything spinning into the center of the spherical ceiling, eaten up by a funnel cloud, running down the drain, dissipated by a fading fan blade.

A few hours later, my memory of what exactly I saw has faded. But I remember how I felt, how my body tensed and how I emerged, dizzy, with a headache that lasted the rest of the day. I was glad I'd chosen the "hard" version because I felt like I'd really seen something, though not sure what exactly I'd seen - or what had actually happened in there. Were my brain waves merely being manipulated to conjure my own virtual reality? Does everyone see something different when they are slid into that same sphere, onto that same bed?

Is what I perceived more important than what actually happened?

Related Posts:
James Turrell Turned My Eyeballs Inside-Out
Photo Essay: Hiking Through a Dream Home in the Hills
Photo Essay: Exploring Light & Color in Exxopolis