Alien Exam

In the Midst of Life

When James Turrell’s Perceptual Cells were presented in solo exhibitions at a number of European venues in 1992 and 1993, many people could hardly believe their eyes. Those who already knew Turrell’s work would have been expecting unobtrusive spaces—reduced to the bare essentials—where everything was about lighting and light effects. Even the exteriors of these constructions, built into museums and exhibition rooms, are plain, neutral. All the exhibition-goer sees from outside is a dark opening in the wall, leading towards the actual event. Exploring and lingering in these spaces, and gradually adjusting to the light phenomena unfolding within them, visitors register the extremely abstract feel of the atmosphere. Without being distracted by other images, without having to follow instructions of any kind, they directly experience light as a spatial phenomenon and as a material with its own qualities. In effect these works offer the viewer a pared down experience where everything extraneous has been cut away.

Not so the Perceptual Cells. Here the chambers and their contents create an ambience that is somewhere between trade fair, test bed, high-tech medicine, and sci-fi scenario. The one-person containers and mini-structures are clearly designed to be used and treated in accordance with specific rules. Moreover they have the air of everyday objects, telephone boxes for instance, and echo traditional architectural forms. There are “standing cells” with heavy doors and just enough room for one person whose head then disappears into what might be described as a “light helmet.” The door is of course equipped with a panic bolt. Another work takes the form of a sound-proofed block on a pedestal. Inside it there is a comfortable chair where the visitor can spend time—hours if they like—in complete darkness, exposed to the apparent opposite of light. In any encounter with these structures, even before the light comes into play, one is presented with an interesting object to explore. It is as though the recognizable real world and the wealth of associations it generates preside over the entrance to a realm of unfiltered phenomena and concentrated experience. There is even room for a dash of irony that culminates in a what looks like a real-life hairdresser’s salon with display cases containing models of old light bulbs and with drying hoods that have been converted into individual light domes, as in Mind Set / Düsseldorf Light Salon, in 1991–92. In that same exhibition even the act of waiting to enter individual works was incorporated into the whole as a specifically staged ritual: “Ich mag Situationen, in denen man alle Zeit hat, die man sich wünscht. . . .” (James Turrell).1

This foray into the physical world of structures, narrative forms, and specially created scenarios partly had its origins in Turrell’s experience of working in a laboratory at the Garrett Aerospace Corporation in connection with the Art and Technology Program, instigated by Los Angeles County Museum of Art (1968–69). This ambitious undertaking, so typical of that era, was designed to give artists the chance to work on joint projects with scientists and technicians in properly equipped laboratories and workshops. The outcome was an exhibition presented in 1971.2 Working with the artist James Irwin and the physiological psychologist Edward Wortz, Turrell carried out a number of experiments on the subject of sensory deprivation. The aim was to combine a totally homogenous field of vision with a completely soundless room. For Turrell, his participation in this program was also of fundamental importance in the sense that he had already come to the conclusion in his own work that there was a need to bridge the chasm between the natural sciences and the humanities. It seems that his Perceptual Cells were informed not only by the ambience of his earlier experiments but also by the notion of isolating a particular experience. A second aspect of this series was Turrell’s determination to create mobile units—to complement the stationary light spaces—that could be more easily be accommodated within the art system. The ultimate aim was that the connection with everyday situations would mean that viewers could more readily experience the fundamental essence of light.

Between Laboratory and Primal Forms

Would it be fair to assume that the parameters of the viewer’s experience of light is different in the Perceptual Cells to that in other spatial works by Turrell? The Operation Room in Alien Exam (1989/92) is of particular interest here because there is a third party controlling the light phenomena. First installed in 1989, it was in 1992 that the work acquired its external form, namely a six-sided chamber with a semi-spherical cupola and pointed roof. Its stereometric housing is faintly reminiscent not only of isolated spaces for medical experiments but also of the cult structures of ancient civilizations. This strange admixture of contemporary science and technology, on one hand, and archaic symbolism and spiritual intent, on the other, is all the more evident in two other works from the series of Perceptual Cells. 1993 saw the making of Gasworks, an imposing piece filling a whole room and made up of a variety of components and devices. Two attendants in white lab-coats show the subject in and work the machinery. As though they were to undergo an MRI scan, the recumbent subject is delivered into a large sphere, inside which they perceive light not just as an optical impression but as a phenomenon that envelops and affects one’s entire body. The external structure of the piece is solely determined by its technical purpose. However, in a series of models made between 1988 and 1991, albeit not according to any instructions provided by Turrell, there are numerous references not only to ancient, early Christian, Oriental, and pre-Columbian buildings, but also to the utopian designs seen in the so-called revolutionary architecture of around 1800 (Boulée Boola, 1988). All these structures are defined by their sparse, rigorously combined basic geometric forms. The model Alien Exam II (1990) has the same combination of hexagon and cupola as the finished piece. However, on a high, circular pedestal that can only be reached by climbing several steps, there is a solid table instead of the functional recliner. The reference to an altar or some place of sacrifice is self-evident.

In the world of science fiction, neutrally presented technological devices are often juxtaposed with mythical, primal architectures. Large swathes of the culture of the 1960s were focused in one way or another on the idea of experimental expansion—be it by breaking down existing barriers with the help of mind-altering drugs, or by adapting underground ideas, by pursuing cross-gender issues, by creating egalitarian and/or communal living situations, or by setting up interdisciplinary experiments involving the arts and the science as in the Art and Technology Program. At the time Turrell specifically drew a parallel between the most popular form of cutting-edge technology of the day and his own work: “We three [Turrell, Irwin, and Wortz] are becoming intranauts exploring inner space instead of outer space.”3 And it was while Turrell was working in a laboratory at the Garrett Corporation that Stanley Kubrick released what was to become a cinema classic, 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is not hard to draw concrete comparisons between the movie, Turrell’s laboratory experiments, and his work in general, both in terms of spatial disorientation—plus the subsequent observation of one’s own perceptions—and the juxtaposition of technological gadgets and minimalist/esoteric forms. 4 Yet, all the while, it seems that in Turrell’s work, as in that of many other artists from that era, futuristic allusions were always tempered by a dose of irony. Indeed, Turrell openly made reference to this a good twenty years later when he was making his Perceptual Cells.5

Undergoing Treatment

Alien Exam is housed in a small structure with wooden walls and a fiberglass cupola. It is just under three-and-a-half meters in width and just over three-and-a-half meters in height.6 The volunteer enters through a door that is locked behind him or her. Inside it they find a person in a white coat, who looks rather like a lab assistant or a medical technician and tells them what to do. Two long windows allow others, looking in, to observe what is going on. Inside the box, on a pedestal, there is a treatment couch that is raised so that the volunteer’s head passes upwards into a circular hole in the ceiling until they find themselves gazing up into the cupola with their entire field of vision filled with the cupola’s brightness. At this point the volunteer may well have a sense of being at someone else’s mercy, because what now happens is not up to him or her but rather to the assistant, who is at a control panel and freely able to alter the balance of red and blue light in the cupola, in keeping with some fairly general instructions from the artist. This is in marked contrast to the spatial installations with artificial light, where one is dealing with an entirely static phenomenon and the only changes that occur are in the gradual adjustment of one’s own perceptive faculties to the given, steady light conditions. It is also very different to Skyspaces, for although the daylight or nocturnal glow entering the space does change, one is aware that this is a natural phenomenon with its own laws, so to speak. And then there are other Perceptual Cells where users can manipulate the light as though they were conducting a controlled experiment on themselves. However, in Alien Exam there is an interactive, interpersonal, psychological aspect to the work. For one not only observes the light; one is also cast in the role of spectator, watching an unpredictable performance controlled by someone else. Whether one silently allows the “play of light” to wash over one or whether one communicates with the other person during the process, the act of exposing oneself to these phenomena and the way one reacts are accompanied by a distinct awareness of the social and psychological aspects of this situation. Thus what one sees in Alien Exam in effect also acquires a narrative dimension. It is as though the shifting colors and the changing intensity of the light were a drama devised by a third party, a sequence that one involuntarily imagines has a meaning that is there to be discovered. Like the references implicit in the external appearance of the Perceptual Cells, these elements of “stage direction” also connect with ordinary experiences in our daily lives. The occurrences in this cell are entirely real; they could be compared to other real situations—the changing light on a theatrical stage, the use of lighting in cinematography, or a medical treatment delivered by a technical apparatus. In most of Turrell’s other light installations the setting for the experience is much more isolated and abstract, and the viewer has a sense of being plunged into a very particular light realm.

Despite the “distractions” that underline the experimental nature of the situation and anchor the experience in the physical and social reality of ordinary life, ultimately the outside world, the chamber, the apparatus, the other person, and even the materiality of the cupola that one is gazing into all recede into the background. All that is left is a sense of the even light entirely filling one’s vision and swamping one’s consciousness. Scientists refer to the ensuing brain response as the “Ganzfeld effect.” Gazing steadily at a completely undifferentiated, monochrome color field bereft of forms and movement, without a centre and without edges, can trigger a reaction in the brain that ultimately shuts out this uniform signal and replaces it with darkness.7 In actual fact, this is the outcome of the complete removal of all external stimuli which in turn induces a sense of unease, of disorientation at the very least, even if the response is reversible. Any change in the field of vision will return the subject’s sight to normal. This effect occurs naturally in Arctic snowscapes, but can also be induced in individuals to inflict what is known as “white torture.” A mild form of this sensory deprivation is seen in the so-called Ganzfeld experiment conducted by parapsychologists hoping to prove the existence of telepathy. Of course it goes without saying that Turrell’s light spaces by definition have nothing in common with intentions or effects of that kind. Nevertheless, the reference here is not without meaning, for it lends weight to the fact that Turrell is manipulating a situation, creating a scenario that is not normal in order to demonstrate something of the full potential of light, space, and perception. And anyone wanting to engage with his work must be prepared—to varying degrees—to yield to as yet largely unexplored realms of their own perceptive faculties and, in so doing, to observe their own responses. Nevertheless, in principle his works do not, by virtue of their appearance, make any greater demands on viewers than other works of art. At a certain point, in any encounter with a work of art one is obliged to relinquish a certain amount of one’s own autonomy and integrity.

The Place of Perception

After a while one becomes accustomed to the homogenous light filling one’s field of vision in James Turrell’s capsules for the individual viewer.  Following an initial sense of disorientation, a kind of placeless seeing sets in; not only do visible, external points of reference fade and recede far into the background, in effect we also lose touch with our internal points of reference, that is to say, the way our vision is physically embedded within us. It is a little as though one were now all eye and brain, and even the eye and the brain are now barely distinguishable. One finds oneself immersed in color sensations that might at best be compared to the visions that can come to one in moments of euphoria or intoxication and that have nothing to do with the color effects we know of in ordinary life. The modulations from one color to another and the changes in the density of the colors do not refract on objects of any kind; they seem to proceed immaterially, of their own accord—no identifiable transitions, no intermediate zones, no changing forms. We do not even have the words to name these colors, for they are entirely out of the ordinary—intense yet endlessly differentiated. Regardless of how swiftly or slowly the colors change or of the order of their appearance, the overriding impression is of an autonomous light continuum; barely able to grasp it intellectually, one has to rely solely on the strange—now completely unconstrained—neurological activity that we call seeing. As we gaze into the light space, memories of images in the natural world and in art quietly seep into our minds; some may even sense analogies to acoustic phenomena, to musical progressions. Similarly, any references to moods induced by what one sees—from meditative, soporific calm to dramatic emotions—are ultimately only attempts to connect this act of pure seeing with other, more familiar circumstances, in order to somehow find a place for the demands made by this experience that is as isolated as it is open-ended.

Anyone who spends fifteen minutes or more in such a capsule will start to feel that they are this place. They are no longer a spectator in a theater, for their seeing, sensitivities, and thought processes have become the arena for this experience. Following their initial, naïve astonishment, they start to observe their own act of seeing, registering their physiological and psychological reactions. In direct contact with the light matter—which is both the subject and the medium of this experience—they benefit from this “out time” as an opportunity to discover something about themselves, in a way that would not have been possible without this apparatus. Turrell once called one of his viewing machines Alien Exam. Beyond its faintly ironic tinge of popular culture it turns out to be a precise description of the process.

Turrell has often pointed out that in all his works his interest is in the material appearance of light and not in its symbolic or spiritual dimensions. Of course he is fully aware that notions of this kind may occur to viewers, that these may even color their interpretations of his work. And there is no doubt that work on the scale of the Roden Crater Project—embedded in Nature, the cosmos, and Native American culture—adds fuel to these interpretations. Nevertheless, this is not the intention of the creator of these structures that provide such unique light sensations. Any additional layers of meaning are rather the outcome of the self-observation of the subject experiencing the light. Accordingly—and contrary to first impressions—the Perceptual Cells could be regarded as a particularly “pure” demonstration of the core of Turrell’s thinking, specifically because they make no attempt to disguise their experimental nature. Neutral and tied into reality, they isolate the light event in the almost clinical set-up of an experiment conducted by a research scientist. Here one can encounter firsthand the raw material of Turrell’s interest in light. Everything else is up to the volunteer.

1 James Turrell in “’There never is no light . . . even when all the light is gone, you can still sense light,’” interview with Allison Sarah Jacques, in James Turrell: Perceptual Cells, ed. by Jiri Svestka in collaboration with Alison Sarah Jacques and Brigitte Wontorra, exh. cat., Kunstverein für die Rheinlande und Westfalen, Düsseldorf 1992, p. XX.

2 See Maurice Tuchman, Art and Technology: A Report on the Art and Technology Program of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. 1967–1971, Los Angeles and New York 1971.

3 James Turrell, as cited in William Wilson, “Two California Artists Are Busy Exploring Inner Space,” in The Los Angeles Times, 11 May 1969, Section D, p. 2.

4 See Craig Adcock, James Turrell. The Art of Light and Space, Berkeley, Los Angeles, Oxford 1990, pp. 76 f.

5 See Allison Sarah Jacques (as note 1), pp. 56–70.

6 In a sense the architectural model of Alien Exam II may represent Turrell’s ideal of the work. Nevertheless, the more or less obvious differences in the various versions of this work that have been made over the years are of little significance. In fact, the Perceptual Cells are best described, in the widest sense, as conceptual installations, where the salient features and elements are stipulated although certain aspects, such as the technical elements, may be remade each time the work is installed. The question of whether the resulting piece is an original is not at issue; what matters is that the work should be realized as appropriately as possible.

7 See Ramesh B., “Ganzfeld Effect,” (28.02.2009).

Translated from the German by Fiona Elliott 

(Published in: James Turrell – Geometrie des Lichts / Geometry of Light, Zentrum für internationale Lichtkunst, Unna; Hatje Cantz Verlag, Ostfildern, 2009, pp. 55-67)