Reading George Fox

Incarnating the Immaterial

"Light is not the bearer of revelation—it is the revelation."[1]

James Turrell’s Aten Reign, currently at the Guggenheim[2], embodies light’s power, such that even the most insensitive observer can’t help but be moved. As a lighting designer, I’ve devoted over half my life to studying light’s ability to connect and separate, to enliven and to deaden, to reveal and to conceal. Like all our senses, sight operates in potent unconscious ways: certain colors provoke specific emotions; bright and changing sources command our attention[3]; without contrast, intense hues fade over time and alter the color of differing hues[4]; we all have two blind spots corresponding to our optic nerves—our brain automatically fills them in so we experience a continuous visual field[5]. My career involves taking these physiological and psychological facts and using them to manipulate audience members. As Jennifer Tipton[6] said, “1% of the audience notices the lighting; 100% are effected by it.”

The genius of Turrell’s work is the enabling a lay person to perceive this force. Even if visitors do not know how Turrell accomplishes this, they feel consciously compelled to lie there and experience the event. They are moved and held. In the insanity of New York City, they stop, witness, and reflect[7].

Light has five properties that can be manipulated—Angle, Color, Intensity, Specularity[8], and Change Over Time. Aten Reign employs all of them to create its magic. Every observer immediately notices the continually changing color—it grabs our attention. Yet the other properties are equally potent. As Turrell manipulates angle and contrast, the scrims[9] alternatively expand and contract the space—we experience the light oscillating between solidity and incorporeality. Moreover, the placement of the lights outside of our sight lines turns the entire rotunda into a giant reflective surface[10]. The shadows fade to imperceptibility under the softness of the light. We are surrounded by it; there are no places the light does not reach. We are all equally touched and our gaze is drawn upwards to the enveloping and intangible source. At certain times, the colors become dissonant[11], evoking tension within our chests, yet these moments pass quickly—peace returns as a gift. During another, the light is pulled upwards, withdrawing into the central, highest source. We are left practically alone in the dark; our eyes not having the time to adjust to the few photons still emitted. A long pause—and the illumination returns, blossoming into a warm radiance.

As I’m sure all have noticed, I could easily substitute spiritual terms in the above description and produce a religious pamphlet. Turrell is a Quaker after all, and the Inner Light is central to his faith[12]. This installation is an aid for us to consecrate the rotunda into a spiritual space The dichotomy of solidity and incorporeality evokes how the divine[13] can be viscerally present in our hearts at the same time as it is impossible to grasp. In a world without shadows, we are drawn together in contemplation. Yet Turrell wisely provides moments of discord and darkness—we all undergo dark nights of the soul and must find the courage and strength to tolerate them until the outer light returns. Perhaps it is within these moments we learn the most about ourselves, as our inner light exposes our festering wounds.

I’m not claiming that every visitor undergoes this transfermation. There’s plenty of flash photography[14], loud conversation, and children wresting on the central mat. Yet there is far less of this distraction than we would expect at a New York “must-see” exhibit. Many people lose track of time gazing upwards; the room often descends into a hush[15]; the security guard directing the admission line told me that my mind was about to be blown. Moreover, unlike many recent “unmissable” installations[16], Aten Reign is a communal experience: there are no long waits[17] to be the only person in the room, hoping to cram the soul’s movement into a bare 60 seconds[18]. No time limit is imposed; we could lay there from 10am to 5:30pm[19]. And we do so together—even the tumbling children can be an opportunity to cultivate peace and presence in a chaotic world. Turrell has give us a chance to grow closer to ourselves; if you can make it to New York before September 25, I urge you to do so. Such an opportunity is a rare gift.

  1. New Light Fixture for a Famous Rotunda, Roberta Smith, New York Times, 2013–06–20  ↩

  2. And probably only ever there; I don’t know of any other spiral rotundas in which to install it.  ↩

  3. During a graduate school lighting critique, a set designer disputed this claim, saying, “We can look where we want to.” While we certainly can make a conscious effort to direct our gaze away from such sources, it is indeed an effort. We end up with both mental fatigue and eye strain. Sometimes we might want to provoke that in an audience, but it certainly won’t make them comfortable, and, if they cease that effort, their gaze will return to the bright, moving source.  ↩

  4. If I bath a stage in only shades of pink, a regular home light bulb will appear intensely green.a. Our brains add the complimentary color to our vision to normalize the light to neutral grey.
    a The primary colors of light are not the same as the primaries for pigment, taught in most art classes. They are Red, Blue, and Green, and the secondaries are Magenta, Cyan, and Amber.  ↩

  5. And if these phenomena aren’t convincing enough, consider Blind Sighta,. There are two neural pathways connecting the optic nerve to the cortex, and only one of them produces conscious sight. In multiple experiments on patients who have had only that pathway damaged, researchers would shine a light at the wall and ask where it was. The patients would claim not to know and then would be asked to just try. They would point directly at the spot. Often they could also “guess” color and orientation. These patients can see things they cannot see.
    a As described in V.S. Ramachandran’s excellent The Tell-Tale Brain.  ↩

  6. Who has trained or whose students have trained a huge percentage of American lighting designers.  ↩

  7. This is not an original observation, Morgan Meis has an excellent review, well worth reading.  ↩

  8. How “hard” or “soft” the light is. Hard light comes from a specific source and creates well defined shadows. Think of the sun in late afternoon: we are aware of exactly where the light is coming from and the shadows behind us are dark and sharp. Soft light, on the other hand, comes from diffuse, broad sources—on a cloudy day, light comes from the entire sky, and the few shadows that do exist are much lighter and have fuzzed edges.  ↩

  9. Loosely woven fabric stretched tight across the space on each floor. When light hits them at a perpendicular angle, they become practically invisible; when the angle is closer to parallel they suddenly become apparent (visible, but transparent).  ↩

  10. In film terms, a big ass bounce.  ↩

  11. My favorite is when the underside of the rotunda becomes an intense chartreuse.  ↩

  12. The first that enters into the place of your meeting…turn in thy mind to the light, and wait upon God singly, as if none were present but the Lord; and here thou art strong. Then the next that comes in, let them in simplicity of heart sit down and turn in to the same light, and wait in the spirit; and so all the rest coming in, in the fear of the Lord, sit down in pure stillness and silence of all flesh, and wait in the light…. Those who are brought to a pure still waiting upon God in the spirit, are come nearer to the Lord than words are; for God is a spirit, and in the spirit is he worshiped…. In such a meeting there will be an unwillingness to part asunder, being ready to say in yourselves, it is good to be here; and this is the end of all words and writings—to bring people to the eternal living Word.
    Alexander Parker, 1660  ↩

  13. However one defines it.  ↩

  14. Especially amusing here as photographers attempt to capture the absence of light.  ↩

  15. Such seemingly unmotivated moments of silent always remind me of how social humans are. As an audience chats before a performance, all it takes is for a few individuals to expect the show to start, stop speaking, and focus on the stage—suddenly there are barely any whispers in the room. This even happens when those first individuals are mistaken and the performance won’t begin for several more minutes. We are always paying intense unconscious attention to the behavior of those around us.  ↩

  16. Random International’s Rain Room and Yayoi Kusama’s Fireflies on the Water, among others.  ↩

  17. According to the Guggenheim’s website, the longesta wait is 30 minutes. I went on a Thursday afternoon and walked right in.
    a There is a longer wait for Turrell’s earlier pieces on display in the 5th floor annex, but, while amazing, they are not the central draw.  ↩

  18. Fireflies… was a powerful experience, but there is only so much one can get out of a minute.  ↩

  19. Which I’m planning to do this coming Tuesday, August 13.  ↩

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