By Clay Matlin
I have always had my suspicions about James Turrell, though they have never bordered on distrustful. I do not think there is anything malicious about his work, nor do I think he is laughing at those who both view and experience it. Rather, my concerns lay with his use of light as an object. His light does not exhibit warmth, but shines with deep melancholy. This is, of course, not a particularly original use or understanding of light. Caravaggio could not escape light’s lure; his paintings seem always to find a way to depict the light of Heaven against the gloom of the mortal world. Neither could Frederick Church, who strove to show us that to try to depict the way light enters the world is to marvel at life’s mysteries, but to be incapable of really touching them. Much later, there was Dan Flavin whose fluorescent light work derived its power from his belief that light is “a matter of fact” and as such is “as plain and open and direct an art you will ever find.” In many ways this attitude holds true for Turrell and his Light and Space brethren, Robert Wheeler and, to a lesser extent, Robert Irwin. Yet their concerns are different than the mystics and painters born before the twentieth century.
For these men grew up in what Albert Camus called the “century of fear,” their childhoods unfolded during the Second World War. They lived through the defining moment of the last century, the dropping of the atom bomb. Its tests in the high desert, the mushroom clouds, the black and white images of it falling from the belly of the Enola Gay, its endless heat—all of these things inform their work. I believe, however, that these moments haunt Turrell, the son of peacenik Quakers, more than any other American artist of his generation: the flash of the bomb, the light of creation with its destructive power and its promise. We find here, to borrow from Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, the dialectic of enlightment. They understood implicitly, as did Friedrich Schiller almost two hundred years earlier, that the march of progress, the blinding illumination of the light of reason, leads to the light of ultimate destruction. It is a leveling of the world in order to save it. Turrell’s art emerges from this dialectic, though its power lies in his transformation of the light that presages death into the light that tries to bring us into life. If this seems like a stretch, bear with me.
We must remember that Fat Man and Little Boy, while weapons of mass destruction, were without question tools to reorder the world. They created disorder, yet they also held promise. This promise rested not simply in their capacity to end life, but as Nils Bohr, and later Robert Oppenheimer, believed, it also lies in the bomb’s ability to end war itself through the creation of a world in which each country would own the bomb. For when each country had the capability to destroy others the stakes would be too high. War would no longer be winnable. There would be “a spasm of mutual destruction,” yes, but “war” as we know it would be over. Though the bomb would lead to death, in death there would be resurrection. The very dropping of it on Hiroshima and Nagasaki signaled the rebirth of the world, the redemption of mankind. While a few hundred thousand would die, billions would be saved. Oppenheimer and Bohr had succumbed to the same millennialist fervor that has struck those living in America for almost four centuries, this perverse desire to usher in a new, maybe divine, age.
Turrell is not so different. His is an art of millennialist desire. It may not be one that seeks a kingdom on Earth or dreams of some sort of Christian redemption, but his hope is to bring us closer to a singular moment. How else does one explain a statement like this: “My art deals with light itself. It’s not the bearer of the revelation – it is the revelation.” Or this: “Space has a way of looking. It seems like it has a presence of vision. When you come into it, it is there, it’s been waiting for you.” Turrell’s words are not so different from another, though now dead, artist deeply affected by the bomb who also, though here he was explicit, sought to save the world the bomb had left in its wake: Barnett Newman. Writing in 1948, Newman declared: “We are asserting man’s natural desire for the exalted, for a concern with our relationship to the absolute emotions….The image we produce is the self-evident one of revelation, real and concrete.”
Perhaps this is how Turrell sees Aten Reign, his new installation that has taken over the Guggenheim’s rotunda, as “real and concrete,” filling it with light and creating what is an almost completely immersive environment. The light pulses and changes, filling the emptiness that is the center of the Guggenheim. Is it the revelation? Aten Reign envelops us, but the experience is not fulfilling, we do not get lost in it. The flood of color is all around us. In fact, we are in it, but the sense of full immersion (as is found in his tunnel The Light Inside at the Houston MFA) is never achieved. In other portions of the exhibition Turrell’s light is richer, more powerful. Earlier pieces like the Shallow Space Construction (Turrell’s designation) Ronin (1968) with its single strip of white light running the length of where two walls meet is startling in its simplicity. Iltar (1976), what Turrell calls a Space Division Construction, a room filled with grey whiteness that washes over the viewer leaves one with a sense of being in some sort of dense yet light mist, is unsettling. But still, even here, there is no revelation.
Maybe what Turrell is after is not our revelation but his. He seems to be following a path he is helpless to resist, part of a final culmination, really, that began centuries before and in one instant found its greatest expression in a flash of light, like creation, and then nothing, just death. Here was Genesis. And here was apocalypse. Perhaps here was revelation, the light that Turrell grants all the power to. The fire bombings of Hamburg, Tokyo, and Dresden, the Luftwaffe bombings of Guernica and London, these paled in comparison to the capacity for instantaneous tragedy that would be unleashed less than a month after Trinity. The difference lay in the proficiency to reduce drastically the time it took to take lives. Gone were World War Two’s days and nights of bombing, the precision attacks that were precise in name only. Those mind-numbing numbers of munitions dropped from great heights, hundreds of thousands, even millions of tons, in what must have seemed like an endless barrage, could now be replaced with a small bit of plutonium and modern science’s new found ability to stuff what amounts to the birth of the universe inside a ten-and-a-half-foot long, twenty-nine inch in diameter, 10,000 pound falling metal coffin. That the dialectic of enlightenment, the dispelling of darkness with a cleansing light had led to one very short moment, less than a minute, forty-three seconds in fact, for the equivalent of 12,500 tons of TNT to fall 31,000 feet to earth should not be surprising.
The explosion lasted less than a second. The temperature at the center reached 5,400º Fahrenheit. Little Boy had a 54 percent kill rate. The March fire bombing of Tokyo was “only” 10 percent with 100,000 killed out of one million. One hundred thousand were killed by Little Boy; another hundred thousand were injured. Of 76,000 buildings, 70,000 were damaged or destroyed; 48,000 were unsalvageable. “This was what everyone had been waiting for, what had hung for months like a shadow over everything we did, making us weary,” wrote Hans Erich Nossack, who lived through the July 1943 eight day bombing of Hamburg. “It was the end….We expected someone to call out to us: Wake up!”
Turrell’s is not an art that worships death, but the light that he uses is the desire to be the flash of revelation. The bomb revealed to us the mysteries of the universe, it showed that we could unlock the atom, the building block of creation and harness it for death or life. What James Turrell does is to take the terror of the bomb’s light and make it bearable, even healing. It is not the end, as Nossack feared, but instead the chance to try and live in the world. At his best—I am thinking here of Meeting at PS1—Turrell allows us to take the light of the world as it comes to us and accept that as most fulfilling.
We are well served to turn to Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy. “When after a forceful attempt to gaze on the sun we turn away blinded,” Nietzsche observed, “we see dark-colored spots before our eyes, as a cure…necessary effects of a glance into the inside and terrors of nature; as it were, luminous spots to cure eyes damaged by gruesome light.” 1945 saw the most gruesome of lights, in a war filled with death riding the brightest of flashes. We are still damaged, yet by seeking to provide the revelation, even though that desire is both pompous and foolhardy, Turrell has attempted to lessen the burden of living with the bomb, to remove the shadow that haunted Nossack and continues to haunt Turrell to this day. Thomas McEvilley, the late art critic and philologist, once remarked that during the Second World War the sky seemed darker. Maybe this is a memory Turrell shares, and through his light he might clear those skies. This is a noble and decent thing. What else could we expect from this Quaker son?