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Let There Be Light

by Duncan Simcoe

I am looking at a reproduction of a mural. It depicts the Resurrection of Christ and is located in the apse of a Byzantine church in Istanbul. As such, it symbolically depicts/shows that which cannot not be seen. For example, it uses concentric bands of light blue to white to surround Christ in a Mandorla, that almond shape of light; a symbol for the womb of heaven. In the words of James Turrell, it is a use of light to tell a story, and so, quite distinct from his interest in light as a subject. But it overlaps his fascination with light as a revelatory shape, which is what his work has been about for the past 40+ years.

Turrell has been peeling back the encounter with phenomenal light to its very event/act, which is of course, something that happens in your head. Depending on one’s insistence that sight is caused by objects ‘out there’ to be seen you can alternately push past this coding and enter in to the kind of direct encounter with light that Turrell generally seeks to set up: flipping in and out of this state while watching yourself seeing, which is fun. Or you stay lodged in an ego-centric, cause and effect ditch, in which case you try to figure out what it ‘is’ and how it works. As one of my fellow viewers commented, rather too loudly, as we stood in the Raemar Pink White Chamber: “I just have to see what’s behind the veil!” 

One of the alchemies that Turrell’s work can perform is to make color a tactile experience. In Ganzfeld, a shifting color environment that is entered up a flight of stairs, giving it a distinctly liturgical flavor, Turrell floods the spacious chamber with light/color in such a way as to render normal spatial perception inoperative. Instead, the soft, somewhat dawn-like colors fill the space right up to your skin and you experience this as a kind of pressure. You wave your arms in it like a fluid, you almost expect to be breathing it in. The gaze is defeated and sight takes on a profoundly ‘bodily’ quality that recalls a line from the Psalms: “you hem me in, before and behind.” This particular piece has another effect on the body which I am not sure is intended. As you wait your turn to climb the steps, you have several minutes to watch the pervious group explore the elevated space. They appear heavy, dark and clunky: dense mammalian interruptions in an otherwise flawless field of saturated color. The Hindu belief that bodies move from a gross to subtle state as they journey towards God is strongly evoked and this piece puts your face in our relatively remedial state in this regard.

The erudite catalog essay by Michael Govan strings together a lineage for Turrell’s work, appropriately naming as its antecedents: Da Vinci, The Romantics, Russian Icon painters, Impressionism and more structurally, Etinne-Louis Boullee’s architectural ‘cenotaph for Isaac Newton.’ What is missed, and I think at this point in cultural time the omission is a large one, is the much more direct linkage his work has to the theoretical work of Alhazen, the 10th century Arab theorist/mathematician and arguably the father of Modern optics. In Arab science, seeing was a function of light and happened in the mind. The net result of sight, the ability to observe objects ‘out there’, was regarded as inherently unstable and so unlike God and unworthy of serious study. Instead, Alhazen used a ‘Double chamber’ in order to demonstrate his idea about the dynamics of light-as-rays, punching holes in boxes to observe the transit of light, just like Turrell in his Mendota Hotel studio back in the 70’s. The early Renaissance Italians, not being so familiar with Arabic, mistook Alhazens’ references to ‘shape’ to mean the objects/subject of the gaze, whereas ‘Sura’ (shape) as used in his written theory, referred to the impressions that the brain, or ‘last sentient’ receives from light; meaning the shapes are in your head. Pieces like Afrum are straightforward demonstrations of this and I think would be quickly recognized as such by the old Arab.  Because of the way Europeans misunderstood Alhazen, sight became a window to be looked out of onto a landscape of objects, and perspective the means to represent the view through that window.

One of the frankest embodiments of this difference is the Mashrabiyya, the porous but intensely decorative screens that traditionally cover the window in Islamic architecture. The gaze outward is muzzled but the incoming light is articulated into an ever-changing matrix of shapes, just as the eyes themselves articulate it into the ‘last sentient.’ Turrell’s work with the Rodan Crater is a very simplified Mashrabiyya on an environmental scale: creating windows that you do not see out of as much as look at, sky-color reduced to stunning luminous plane, and that articulate the ever-changing shape of light across it’s chosen interior surfaces.


Duncan Simcoe is a painter and musician. He teaches full-time in the Department of Art at California Baptist University in Riverside, Calif.

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