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James Turrell

Posted by Arianna Ghezzi on 3 Mar 2020

It was such a great surprise discovering James Turrell's artwork was due to be exhibited in London.

For whoever is not familiar with his work, James Turrell is a very prolific American artist, and famous for his artworks which not only uses lighting but are proper light installations.

James started his work using lighting projectors then progressed to focusing on installations characterised by big apertures, structural cuts into architectures, where the light creates different scenarios and reality, mixing interior and exterior.

From a Lighting Designer point of view, it is fascinating to see the interaction between the human sensory limitation and the light of his art pieces. How the installations celebrate the emotional effect of lighting, challenging the spectator with unsettling optical illusions.

The first time I saw one of his creations was in New York at the Guggenheim Museum. I was instantly mesmerised by the installation called Aten Reign, one of James's more significant large-scale projects. It expanded over the atrium of the museum and transformed the entire space.

Image from Architect News 

The atrium itself took on a new identity, appearing even more prominent and amplified by the evocative lighting, which was continued to the very top, the museum oculus. Daylight revealed the piece from above with a series of layered coloured lights which descended and touched the floor, stairs and ramps. The intense colours captured my eyes and projected them to the daylight, which looked so perfectly placed in the middle of gradients of colours. The light had the power of disconnecting me from the crowd and inspiring a natural sense of calm, relaxation and mindfulness. I often use images of this installation as an inspiration for projects when I am designing spaces such as spas and atriums. 

Image from Architect News 

The Pace Gallery in London is currently hosting James Turrell's second London solo show until the 11th of March. The three art installations are revealed to the observers in a dark surrounding, completely taking over one of the gallery rooms. The pieces change colour in a prolonged sequence creating colourful shadows on the walls and floor which change rhythmically. This creates the illusion of a room filled with pastel colours. Every colour evokes different emotions, and it unveils different reactions or memories. The lack of daylight creates the illusion that time has frozen.

These sculptural objects are oval- shaped, made of glass, and animated by shifting pixel LED lights. The construction detail is unknown (at least to me!) and even if one tried to get very close to them, the engineering behind was well concealed and hidden from view. Plus, I wouldn't suggest getting too close, the security team were not very impressed by my not so subtle attempts!

Image from Pace Gallery 

Image from Pace Gallery

I love James's creations as they are not aggressive and their messages are not created by unnerving the spectator, but quite the opposite. His light is embracing, evocative and creates reverential atmospheres. Most importantly, the indirect and carefully concealed lighting makes the viewer intrigued by his unique method and question how he has achieved this.

As a Lighting Designer, we aim to create a beautiful and appropriate lighting effect, without seeing the light source, and this is one of the reasons why James Turrell’s work inspires me.