July 13, 2013

James Turrell Turned My Eyeballs Inside-Out

When I first walked down the rugged path to the James Turrell skyspace at the Sheats-Goldstein Residence, I didn't really know what the big deal was.

I liked the room, with its ever-changing hues of light, and its ceiling aperture which allows you to moon-gaze while reclining on a leather, sunken bed.

But while I initially enjoyed it as somewhat of a novelty, ignorant of much of the modern art world, I realize now: this guy's work is really something.

I don't know what it is yet, but it's really something.

Concurrent with exhibitions at both the Guggenheim in New York and LACMA in Los Angeles (the latter of which I'll be visiting this fall, the first admission I could get), the Kayne Griffin Corcoran Gallery is celebrating its new location on South La Brea with three examples of Turrell's work: a current exhibit on his fascinating Roden Crater project, a permanent skyspace which serves as their meeting room, and the "Meditation Room," a free, reservation-only, good-luck-getting-off-the-waitlist experience of light, sound, and maybe a little bit of freaking out, that's part of Turrell's series of perceptual cells.

Upon entering the blue room through a single, small door, I encountered amphitheater-style carpeted stairs that lead up to two leather beds, laid out head-to-head. I was flying solo, so I asked if there was a difference between the two positions. "No," the docent said, "Just make sure you're looking straight up there," pointing to the center of the domed ceiling.

He then handed me a panic button, saying, "This is in case you don't like it."

As I laid down, the door seemed very far away.

As the light show began, I was fidgety, fumbling with my phone and purse and sunglasses, all of which I wish I'd surrendered at the door. Their echoes in this oddly-lit pod were tremendous. I could hear my stomach gurgling loudly. And as the lights began to flicker (this is a strobed experience), I could see every speck on the surface of my contacts, every droplet of tear on the surface of my eyeballs.

As the light show progressed, I sensed I was looking at the inside of my own eyeballs.

And, at times, when the light shifted from blue to yellow or into a deeply imbued red, it was as though I was losing all sight altogether, going blind in a wash of color. Sometimes blinking corrected this perception. Sometimes it did not.

Imagine if you saw bright red when you closed your eyes. This is what the Meditation Room looks like.

Until the lights start intermittently flashing again. The strobe focuses you, brings you back to reality. For a time.

For my first Turrell experience of this sort, I chose the "soft" option over the "intense" option, though after surviving the low-grade show (which does become increasingly intense over the 16 minutes), I was immediately curious as to what the high octane version would be like. I'd had a hard time settling down for the first few minutes of the show, but once I did, I sank into position, and went with it. This was easy, right? Maybe I should try something harder.

And then I tried to get up. I tried to walk. I tried to put on my shoes.


My docent looked at me knowingly and said, "We usually don't recommend you drive right away. Maybe walk around the gallery a little bit..."

I was able to eventually adjust my vision and my gait enough to operate heavy machinery (that is, my car), but my body feels different today, after the Meditation Room. It feels like it went through something. (Compare to the experience of taking a sound bath.)

I can't wait to do the Perceptual Cell at LACMA in October.

Note: Photos and video won't capture the experience. You have to see it from inside your own eyeballs.

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