Patience to Greet the Light

by Amanda Rountree

Though it has never really disappeared, the work of James Turrell is experiencing a long overdue reemergence in the public consciousness with three large-scale exhibitions around the country. For those of us near Los Angeles, a major retrospective of Turrell’s work at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA through April 6, 2014) is a rare treat, providing a glimpse into the native Southern Californian artist’s vast body of work. Though always keenly aware of Turrell’s importance in the Light and Space Movement of the 1960s, because of his experiments with limits of visual perception and emerging technologies, I had never had the opportunity to experience his work first-hand until I walked into the LACMA last week. When I turned a corner of the exhibition and sat down, I had intended to stay for only a minute or two. I strolled through room after room filled with drawings, holograms and light installations, before I stopped suddenly in front of a glowing ‘window’ of colored light. Though only initially aware of the subtle and almost imperceptible changes in the color, the longer I sat, the more I began to truly see light itself. I was captivated by the way the colors would fold in and out of each other like long drawn-out breaths, the way my eye would barely catch the subtle moments before change, and the way its glow began to entirely engulf me.

Through his work, Turrell allows light to become something to be seen and not solely something by which we see everything else. Turrell has remarked, “I apprehend light — I make events that shape and contain light.” Each of Turrell’s pieces is a process of evolution and discovery. His work is not simply the generation of colored light, but is rather the creation of a space and time in which one actually discerns its presence, notices its subtleties and nuanced qualities, and better understands its influence on our awareness of the world around us. Through each piece, whether it is a window or one of his immersive ‘ganzfeld’ rooms, Turrell creates spaces in which light may be contained, quantified and observed, while simultaneously allowing it to remain intangible and transcendent.

Though he resists calling his art ‘religious,’ Turrell has often reflected upon the ways that being raised as a Quaker, whose traditions include experiential spirituality and practices of extended periods of silent worship, have deeply influenced both his art making practices and the experiences individuals have when interacting with his work. He has often recounted his grandmother’s encouragement to “go inside and greet the light” when she brought him to a Quaker ‘meeting for worship’ when he was a boy. Though his grandmother was referring to spiritual light, the illuminating light of the Holy Spirit, Turrell instinctively made a connection between this Quaker spiritual belief and the fundamentally physical nature of light itself. Thus, Turrell’s pieces may be seen as sanctuaries of light—spaces set apart for meditation on the imperceptible, spaces for transforming the ordinary into the sacred. 

As I sat there transfixed by Turrell’s work, I began to notice fellow art patrons sitting beside me on the small museum bench. Many of them would have a seat, gaze respectfully at the work for a moment or two before rising and continuing on to the next room of the exhibition. At one point during my rapt contemplation, I overheard two women whispering excitedly, trying to determine whether the piece was actually changing. I quietly turned to them and told them that yes, the colors were indeed changing and I urged them to stay a few more minutes to catch a glimpse of the piece’s glacial metamorphosis. They expressed their excitement, then waited for about half a minute before leaving. I was surprised and frustrated. I wanted to call after them and to bring them back to that bench; I wanted to share with them this profound, illuminating experience. But that was when it struck me, when I realized that we have forgotten how to be patient. We rush through museums, making sure to glance at every piece, often viewing whole exhibitions through the lenses of our cameras or the screens of our iPhones, not taking the time to be undistracted, to be still.

This phenomenon of impatience is keenly felt at an exhibition like Turrell’s, where time is an essential element of the work. While it may be true that great art speaks volumes in a single moment, great art also takes time. Great art asks us to slow down and to truly see the world around us, to be attentive to color, light and time—it asks us to be silent for a few moments while it speaks and asks us to be open to receiving the gifts it has to offer us. Annie Dillard observed that “the literature of illumination reveals this above all: although it comes to those who wait for it, it is always, even to the most practiced and adept, a gift and a total surprise.” Dillard argues that seeing is sometimes all in the waiting, for we never know when the surprise will come. Just as we learned when we were young, often the best rewards are those delayed, and even better, those unexpected. But we often rush through museums and spirituality in the same way—we want the rewards without the patient, and sometimes tedious, waiting.

For Quakers, worship entails sitting in silence until the Spirit moves someone to speak—there are long breadths of silence and meditation punctuated by sudden vocal illumination. The silence and patience we cultivate as we wait upon the Spirit, is the same silence and patience that will reward us with this gift of sudden illumination when we sit on the lonely museum bench, gazing at the humming colors of Turrell’s work. So go inside and greet the light, for the rewards are great.

Amanda Rountree (’12) is a graduate of the Biola University Department of Art where she currently serves as a receptionist. She is also Director of the Buena Park Youth Theatre in Buena Park, Calif.

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