Monday, August 26, 2013

A Dim View: Why Turrell at the Guggenheim Doesn’t Work

Every hue throughout your work is altered by every touch you add in other places.
—John Ruskin

The work promotes a state of contemplation in a communal viewing space, rekindling the museum’s founding identity as a “temple of spirit”—Guggenheim Museum press release for James Turrell’s Aten Reign, on view through September 25, 2013.

For the past several weeks I’ve been trying to make sense of my profound underwhelm with James Turrell’s otherwise much-touted light extravaganza at the Guggenheim. I love the Guggenheim; the architecture makes any reason to go there a special event, and now one of my most-admired artists has filled the atrium with a giant hollow cone of light and color which, ovoid and tiered like a wedding cake, floats over a seating area like a flying saucer. Gently diffused by the cone’s scrim-like fabric, LED lights gradually shift from one gradated color to another, while muted natural light filters in through the skylight. What’s not to like?

It should be right up my alley. Turrell’s permanent installation at MoMA/PS1, Meeting (1986) is at the top of my ten best list. In addition, I’ve spent a good part of my professional life writing about Robert Irwin and Olafur Eliasson, who work with perception and light in similar ways. I also have a special affinity with Turrell because I, too, come from Quaker stock and have been a practicing Quaker. Meditation and contemplation are important parts of my life.

However, seated in the atrium at the press preview, instead of going into rapture, I began thinking about Eliasson’s circular 360°Room(s) for all Colors of similarly changing hues. There visitors are highlighted participants, lit like fashion models against a seamless background, where here they appeared to have little relationship with the piece that hovered above them.  I also thought about how, in those Eliasson pieces, you can walk right up to the “wall,” which seems to have no substance but that of color, and practically put your nose in it—while the entire experience Turrell has created at the Guggenheim is “up there.” Not significantly related to the scale of my body, it felt separate from me, which meant I didn’t have the desired heightened awareness of my place in it—I was not, to employ the overused phrase, “seeing myself seeing”—any more than I would at a fireworks display. In every work of art the “here” and “there” are important aspects; to be fully satisfying, I want even a painting to tell me something up close as well as from a distance. In an installation, it’s even more important, because if my situation as a visitor isn’t fully developed, I don’t feel a connection with whatever else is going on.

Olafur Eliasson. 360° room for all colours. 2002. Stainless steel, projection foil, fluorescent lights, wood, and control unit, 126 x 321 x 321" (320 x 815.3 x 815.3 cm). Private collection. Installation view at Musée d'Art moderne de la Ville de Paris. Courtesy Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York. © 2008 Olafur Eliasson

The most important aspect, however, of “seeing ourselves seeing” is that our perception is challenged to the point that we no longer trust our normal visual clues. This produces a particular state of self-consciousness that merges with the work—and at this, Turrell has been a master. In his Skyscapes, like the one at PS1, the sky becomes a “thing” you feel you could almost touch, with the result that you find yourself simultaneously questioning it and yourself. And looking at one of his early, simple corner light projections, your brain processes it as a cube with actual mass, even though you know it isn’t.  Nothing like that happens at the Guggenheim; while it’s beautiful, even stunning, there’s no mystery. What you see is what you get—an indication that the line between art and lighting design (which has become extremely sophisticated through the influence of artists) is now very, very thin.

James Turrell, Meeting (1986) MoMA/PS1. Photo: Carol Diehl, 2011

“He’s an orchestrator of experience,” Chuck Close has said of Turrell—but what makes up that experience? Where does it start and stop? Does it begin when you hear about it from a friend, or read a review? Those are things the artist can’t control, but he can influence what happens from the minute you walk through the door.

And what’s that like? My friend, David, a hospital administrator who made the mistake of visiting the Guggenheim with his out-of-town family on a weekend, described it as…“Horrible. Like Disneyland. There were 4-5 lines squeezed into the walled-off lobby, and you’re trying to get in line and bumping into everyone…and once you get your ticket and come into the atrium you’re trying to look up but can’t because there are so many people. It was pretty, but hardly transcendent. The architecture was all covered up and you could have been anywhere. And then, still bumping into people, you walked up the walled-off ramp, which felt like a missed [artistic] opportunity, to stand in more lines. Not that we were looking to be entertained, but we were looking for $20 worth of something.”

Another friend said the guards were ordering people around, telling them to get off the floor if they tried to lay on it….”It’s not their fault,” he said, “They were only doing their job, but it could have been managed better.”

So how much of that has to do with Turrell? I think it all does.

Much to the annoyance of painting students when I refuse to overlook a warped stretcher (the perpetual question being, “Is this intentional?”), I have always contended that everything that falls into my experience is part of the piece—a view that has fueled my no-doubt tedious bloggy diatribes against artists’ statements, wall text, audio tours, black-out curtains, headphones, etc. 

I was irritated when, a few years ago, I found that entrance to a Turrell installation, required shedding my shoes and donning floppy Tyvek protective booties. While surely an over-reaction on the part of one who’s invested too much in her fashion statement, I interpreted this as a power play on the part of the artist (“Really? Part of your piece is to make me look ridiculous?”).

So yes, in my book, the queues, crowd control, and the need for crowd control are all part of it.  This is, after all, the same museum that, in 2010, featured relational aesthetics guru, Tino Seghal, whose piece involved engaging visitors in conversation. After that and many similar, such as Martha Rosler’s garage sale and Marina Abramović’s The Artist is Present, both recently at MoMA, it would be arbitrary to insist that personal interactions are significant in one circumstance, but not in another.

Eliasson (who was largely inspired by Robert Irwin, also my biggest influence, and now both have shaped my thinking) was aware of this responsibility on the part of the artist back in 2003, when he configured his monumental weather project at the Tate Modern. Approaching the institution as a whole, part of his preparation involved talking to members of each of the museum’s departments to discuss how their roles would impact his project.

 Olafur Eliasson, weather project (2003), Tate Modern

Eliasson also configured something that could handle the crowds it brought—which raises a related question: what is the artist’s accountability to the social situation his work is creating and/or occupying? For defenders of Richard Serra’s threatening Tilted Arc, which after much controversy, was ultimately removed from a busy office plaza, the answer was “None.” But much has gone on since 1989, with artists now more aware of, and willing to embrace, the public nature of their work. If relational aesthetics has had a positive impact, it has been to highlight the artist’s role in configuring the entire art experience.

Richard Serra, Tilted Arc (1981)

All of this casts doubt on the decision to turn Frank Lloyd Wright’s soaring masterpiece into a confined area that requires limited entrance—and attempt to create a relatively intimate space in a public institution whose most basic function is to accommodate large numbers of people. Another power play perhaps?

I like to think of “generosity” in terms of public sculpture/installation, as a measure of the number of ways a work may fulfill the artist’s intention to successfully affect his audience. For example, few works are more “generous” than Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate in Chicago’s Millennium Park. Installed in 2006 and nicknamed “The Bean” for its shape, this giant organic structure of highly polished stainless steel is engaging day and night, from afar, up close, and even underneath, involves light, reflection, and movement, and is as affective in the presence of crowds as it would be in solitude.

Anish Kapoor, Cloud Gate (2003-6), Chicago.

Anish Kapoor, Cloud Gate (2003-6), video: Carol Diehl (2012).

Anish Kapoor, Cloud Gate (2003-6) View from underneath. Video: Carol Diehl (2012).

This is not to say that art has to be popular or even pleasing, but that it fulfills its purpose on every level. Therefore, if the intention of a piece was about the frustration of not being able to see it, say, then the question of its success would be, was everyone sufficiently frustrated?

Frustration and contemplation, however, do not go together.

Meanwhile, the frustration at the Guggenheim continues even after one leaves the atrium and attempts to see Turrell’s earlier works by joining the crowds to ascend the museum’s curving ramps, now claustrophobic tunnels with “walls” of opaque white fabric that block any view of the atrium. As students know, one of the first questions one asks when evaluating any sculpture is, does it perform equally well from all sides, or does it have a “dead zone?” This is something sculptors like Mark de Suvero and Richard Serra have obviously given a lot of thought to—as did the ancient Greeks. And especially now that sculpture engages the scale and dynamics of architecture, just as with personal interactions, it seems arbitrary to insist that we shouldn’t take the outside of Turrell’s cone into consideration as an integral part of the piece—it was, as my friend, David, put it, a “missed opportunity.”

Unattributed, possibly a Roman copy from the Greek
Opaque white scrim along ramps, blocking views across the rotunda
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The ultimate frustration, however (or power play….?), has to do with Turrell’s decision to spend untold thousands of dollars (the museum won’t reveal how much) to build a complex apparatus that allows him to completely shroud the building’s distinctive architectural assets in fabric. Why, one wonders, would an artist want to make it something it isn’t, when the thing it is offers so much? Surely most artists would leap at the opportunity to “collaborate,” in a sense, with Frank Lloyd Wright as Jenny Holzer has done so successfully—on the outside of the building, with projections (2008), as well as the inside, where her electronic LED signboards ringed and activated the atrium’s spiraling balcony (1989). In both cases, with a minimum of intervention, Holzer incorporated the building into her own artistic statement without compromising—and even enhancing—its grandeur.

Jenny Holzer:For the Guggenheim, 2008. Light projection. Guggenheim Museum, New York. (The irony of a Holzer piece being preceded by an ad for the US Navy should not be lost).

As if for comparison, at the Whitney just a few blocks away, Turrell’s former compatriot, Robert Irwin, has re-installed a work from 1977 that also involves light, perception, and iconic architecture. But where Turrell merely riffs on Wright’s motif, Irwin goes one-on-one with Marcel Breuer’s Brutalist geometry. Appearing to take the architect’s inimical trapezoidal window as his starting point, Irwin has devised a situation where that jagged opening finally makes sense.

Getting off the elevator you’re presented with a vast room, empty and dim. Illuminated only by the window’s natural light, it’s like being in a black and white photograph.  Facing the elevators and horizontally bisecting the room end to end, is a three-inch thick metal black metal bar, five and a half feet from the floor, above which fog-like translucent scrim is stretched to the ceiling. The only other added element is a painted black stripe, the same height and thickness as the bar and matching the window’s black frame, which continues the motif around the gallery walls. You step forward, but your usual depth perception no longer serves.  You see the bar in front of you and the stripe on the opposite wall…or maybe the stripe is in front? You cautiously advance toward it, not knowing whether to duck or not, and the whole room becomes activated; it’s hard to tell what’s real and what isn’t, what has substance and what doesn’t. Meanwhile the gridded ceiling, stony cement walls, and dark, uneven stone floor—aspects of the gallery that used to fade into the background—take on new prominence, as if they belong equally to artist and architect.

While the museum told me the Irwin was laborious to install and probably as expensive to mount as any exhibition, compared with Turrell’s pyrotechnics, it appears effortless and economical.  Of course, now that I think about it, devising a way to make a fairly thin rod stretch 117 feet would be challenging, but while I was there, how it was achieved never crossed my mind. With a graceful efficiency of means that was absent in the Turrell, it seemed as simple as a drawing.

JUNE 27–SEPT 1, 2013 Photo: Carol Diehl 2013

PART II Robert Irwin on "Scrim Veil-Black Rectangle-Natural Light (1977)" recently at the Whitney

Further reading:

Roberta Smith on Turrell "New Light Fixture for Famous Rotunda"  and Irwin "Ineffable Emptiness: From Dawn to Dusk"

Gabrielle Selz "Considering Perception: Robert Irwin and James Turrell": a look at their shared history.

Lee Rosenbaum: "Turrell's Skyspace Obscures the Sky"

Blake Gopnik: "Has the Sage Turrell Sold Out?"