LightScape: James Turrell at Houghton

Houghton Hall June – 24th October 2015

JT at Houghton 1

The green and pleasant Norfolk countryside is as far removed from Roden Crater in Arizona, as it is from a white cube of an art gallery; nevertheless this is where James Turrell exhibition takes place. Houghton Hall is a Palladian villa built by the first British Prime Minister sir Robert Walpole in the 18th century, belonging to Turrell’s collector David Cholmondeley. The Hall is surrounded by ‘pleasure grounds’ – how the gardens used to be called, home to Cholmondeley’s collection of contemporary sculpture and a tribe of white deer.

The show surveys every decade of Turrell’s practice from the 1960s until today. It contains Light Projections from 1960s, Shallow Space from 1970s, etchings from late 1980s, Space Division from 1990s, Skyspace from early 2000 and current Transmission Holograms and Tall Glass piece using LED technology. The works are placed in five separate locations within the Hall, other buildings and gardens. At the entrance visitors are given maps of the grounds, pointing to various artworks on display. Architecture, landscape and wildlife blissfully distract a visitor on the way. James Turrell is renown for creating conditions for experience rather than objects and here, it starts with a sensation of a treasure hunt, of enchantment and anticipation.

Turrell belongs to the generation of American West Coast artists who shifted the focus of their work from objects to experiences, and gave viewer the power to complete their art. This dematerialised work aims to be a catalyst for sensations, favouring perception and visceral reactions over intellectual discourse. The effect of his work is to make you stop, focus, go beyond thought and language, feel and experience.

Two pieces from the collection of David Cholmondeley: St Elmo’s Breath, 1992 – Space Division and Seldom Seen, 2002 – Skyspace employ fundamental characteristics of Turrell practice: prolonged immersion, ethereal atmosphere, visceral immediacy and focus on changing response of eye and mind. The pieces work with somatic reactions, and deeply set cultural signifiers of light and darkness, tracing a link between bodily and cultural through the universal sense of spirituality evoked by light.

St Elmo’s Breath is placed in the 18th century Water Tower, in the far end of the park. It provides an overwhelming, immersive experience, preceded by a leap of trust to enter darkness. If there is a subject of this work it is a transformation of human experience of space in a very low light, reaction to contrast and gradual accommodation to the environment. The art is static and minimal, still stimulating a wave of sensations in visitor’s head. That is why it is so engaging. There is nothing what can be misunderstood or dismissed, it is happening beyond an intellect or discourse. Turrell gives his viewer a chance to be; to concentrate on bodily adjustments and reactions of mind. Getting into a Water Tower’s Space Division is a step beyond and into one’s head at the same time.

The second piece from the permanent collection is the site-specific work Seldom Seen, 2002 – Skyspace. It is a silver, oak clad pavilion, raised on stills to the tree canopy level. The white cube of interior is distorted only by a ring of benches and a square aperture cut in the roof. The ambience is removed and pure, with the double doors creating a symbolic passage to different reality of this meditative chamber.

St Elmo’s Breath gives an access to Jungian collective consciousness, mental space where one is connected to deep, geological past, as in Sugimoto’s essay Time exposed; while Seldom Seen through its brilliant lightens and clarity prompts some unspecified, spiritual, utopian future. Theses are time machines, one going forward one backward.

The works from Light Projections series recall Derek Jarman’s last movie Blue, when the blind, dying director declares:

In the pandemonium of image / I present you with the universal Blue / Blue an open door to soul / An infinite possibility / Becoming tangible,

his words accompanied by a presence of a deep, cobalt colour field of a screen.

The same could be said about Turrell’s work. In the pandemonium of image he presents simplicity and stillness, which at a closer look is not at all static, with light being a release of energy from burning. Here is a reminder of fundamental paradoxes and contradictions in serenity coming from destruction. His work is elemental and evokes cosmic timelessness as much as human bodily experience, linking the two and putting viewer’s existence in the framework of ethereal physics.


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