An EPiC Art Experience: James Turrell's "Aten Reign"

On the summer solstice, EPiC had the pleasure of hearing James Turrell, one of the most interesting artists of our time (and perhaps funniest too -"art is not such a big deal, it's not even rock and roll!"), speak about his newest light installation, Aten Reign, and view it at the Solomon R. Guggenheim in New York.  Aten Reign is the centerpiece of the Guggenheim's exhibition, which is a part of a three museum retrospective on the 70 year old artist's career (the two other venues being the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston).  The temporary installation is the largest to date for both the artist and the Guggenheim-- it takes over Frank Lloyd Wright's entire iconic rotunda with light that moves "seductively and seamlessly across the color spectrum."


Who is James Turrell?

James Turrell (b. 1947) emerged as an artist in the 1960s as part of the "light and space movement" in Southern California.  What has set Turrell apart from his contemporaries, is where other artists used objects with light, Turrell only used light--no object, image, or focal point.  His largest project, which he has been working on since 1972, is the Roden Crater -- a natural cinder volcano situated on the southwestern edge of the Painted Desert in Arizona, which he has been transforming into a large-scale artwork with chambers, tunnels, pathways, and openings to observe the sky change, the passage of time, and the stars and planets.  In a sense, it's a large-scale version of his "skyspace" series of "framed experiences" or small chambers with large openings to the sky, and walls lined with tilted benches for viewing.  He has around 80 skyspaces all over the world.  

My experience of Aten Reign:

In his talk, Turrell made the comparison of the way people "enter" literature to how they view art.  He described how when we read a book, it's easy to get lost in the story and not notice the passerby or anything going on around us.  When we look at art in a museum, it's a quick once over and then on to the next.  To add to this, I must mention how much Smartphones have changed the way we view art--half of our experience now is capturing the work on our camera phones and putting it on social media sites.  I know that I am guilty of this and I consider myself an art person!  Thus, when I went to view Aten Reign, I took Turrell's challenge and submitted myself to the work and "indulged" in the light.  

I really wanted experience the installation, and fought the urge not to use my iPhone to capture the moment.  I found an open spot on the bench that follows the curve of the lobby floor, and leaned back and "just looked up" (another tidbit that Turrell pointed out was how New Yorkers having a tendency to never look up).  I tried to block out the noise of the others around me, and ignore the museum guards rushing to stop photography (it's not allowed!).  The full color cycle lasts an hour.  I watched the glowing colors fade in and out for about 30 minutes as I was unfortunately pressed for time (typical New Yorker!).  My experience began with shades of white emitting from the concentric ellipses; I thought about Turrell's words from earlier that white light is the combination of every color.  (A scientific fact that as a painter is hard to understand since it's impossible to make white from other colors; it's the color you add to other pure colors in order get a tint or lighten it up!)  


The ocular skylight at the top of the building was bright as it was a sunny day outside, however, depending on the weather and the time of day, each viewer's perception of the light will be different.  I can't really remember the exact order of the colors after the white, but the interior of the Guggenhiem did emit light across the color spectrum: pink, violet, orange, yellow, red, blue, and green.  As the light changed hues fluidly, each tier of the rotunda showed various shades and tints within that hue, similar to a paint swatch.  At times the color felt like it was coming towards me, and at other times as though it was receding.  Towards the end of my experience, I just couldn't fight it could I not capture such an amazing artwork and share it with all of my friends?! So I did it.  I took two photos with my iPhone from the inside of my purse.  Here are the results:

When I left the Guggenheim and viewed my photos, I immediately could tell that they did the work no justice and I felt silly (and guilty!) for even trying.  Aten Reign is truly "a collaboration with the viewer" and must be experienced in real time and space as the artist intended.  It's an EPiC art experience that cannot be missed this summer!  I already cannot wait to go back again before it closes on September 25th.  Hurry, get there quick!

For more information on Aten Reign and the exhibition James Turrell, please click here.