The James Turrell cure for election day blues

Arthur House
25 November 2016

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Hollywood Boulevard on the eve of the election. A man in a Donald Trump mask is gyrating on the sidewalk with a sign that reads ‘Let me take a Trump dump on America’. Nearby, a rival parades a placard of a naked, handcuffed Hillary Clinton. It’s a consoling thought that in around 32 hours, this weird, year-long pantomime will finally be over.

‘Art is the highest form of hope,’ a famous painter once said, so on election day I go to LACMA to see the James Turrells. Hopefully some nice, trippy light installations will take my mind off the madness. You don’t get much more ‘LA’ than James Turrell. As a major player in the Light and Space movement, he’s spent an entire career paying homage to the city’s two most abundant resources. And where better to see his stuff than at the museum whose Art and Technology programme has since the late 1960s funded much of his research into the nature of perception?

It’s rainy season, which of course in LA means day after day of blazing sunshine and blue, cloudless skies. Election day is no different. At LACMA, glad to be out of the sun, I am instructed to swap my shoes for elasticated socks and climb some steps into a bare room that seems to pulse with shifting colour.

This is Breathing Light. Part of Turrell’s Ganzfeld series, it’s supposed to make viewers lose their depth perception. The facing wall, a bright, luminescent panel, cycles slowly through soft pink, orange, white, ultramarine and milky cornflower – a day in the life of the LA sky – while complementary colours emanate from strip lights on the back wall.

The atmosphere is calming and serene but my depth perception is very much intact. There is the ceiling, there is the floor, and there are some other people, some wearing highly perceptible ‘I’ve voted!’ badges and all staring into the panel like it’s some sort of benevolent deity. Aren’t they missing out on the complementary colours behind? I look at the side walls instead, trying to get the best of both worlds. Nothing much happens. Then I approach the front panel, get called back by the invigilator for getting too close to it, and shortly after that, our time is up. We shuffle out into the sunshine.

Outside, my girlfriend tells me that the panel of colour was in fact a cavernous recess. I feel a bit cheated. It looked like a wall to me. Would prior knowledge of its void-like nature have altered my perception of it and therefore my experience? Would I be emerging now, blinking into the sunlight, having looked into the face of God?

After this setback, all hopes are riding on the other Turrell installation, Light Reignfall. This is an MRI-scanner-type thing that you go into one at a time – so unsurprisingly, it’s got a long waiting list and a hefty ticket price. A man in a white coat asks me to sign a release form acknowledging my risk of ‘disability, paralysis, death, serious injury and or severe social and economic losses’. This is encouraging, even if the last bit does remind me of the election. The man in the white coat (not a real scientist, he admits) offers me a choice between the ‘strong’ or ‘weak’ programme. Strong it is. I put on a set of noise-cancelling headphones and lie down. The sham scientist presses a button and slides me into a spherical chamber.

This is more like it. Colour is everywhere, and everything. I don’t know where it starts or ends. Soft synthy sounds are bleeping in my ears. I can’t focus. The colours go from calm and soft to violent and throbbing and a black dot forms in front of my eyes. It swells to an orb and starts to emit black lightning. Suddenly the intensity subsides to lemon yellow and a wave of inexplicable happiness washes over me. I let out an involuntary whimper of joy. Then the throbbing starts up again. I see Bridget Riley lines, a rotating 3D coffin, storms swirling on the surface of a planet. It’s impossible to tell whether it’s real or imagined.

‘I want to stay in there for ever,’ I tell the man in the white coat as he slides me out again 11 minutes later. Perhaps I should. There’s still an hour till the polls close in Florida.