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The Rotunda of Wonder: James Turrell at the Guggenheim

Non-vicarious art: Light artist offers Guggenheim-goers an ambient space for contemplation

‘The basic concept was not to try to destroy or be provocative to the architecture, but to melt in. As if I would kiss Taniguchi. Mmmmm.’ So claimed Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist of her MoMA installation Pour Your Body Out in 2008. Rist’s work sought an intimate dialogue − more like a tête-à-tête − between ‘feminine’ art and ‘male’ architecture, as historian Sylvia Lavin convincingly argued in her book Kissing Architecture.

No such thing can be claimed of James Turrell’s installation Aten Reign, currently on view at the Guggenheim in New York. Turrell turns his back on Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture, hiding its complex geometry behind opaque cloth coverings and rendering Wright’s vertiginous building one dimensional and flat.

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Aten Reign inserts itself in Turrell’s fascinating, life-long and patient investigation of the materiality of light and the idiosyncrasies of perception. It is going to be an art historian’s task to comment on the specific merits of this piece within a very accomplished chain of projects over the past five decades − among which are Afrum I (White) and Prado (White) from 1967, Ronin from 1968, and Iltar from 1976, which are also on display in the Guggenheim’s side galleries.

Viewed as an autonomous piece of art, Aten Reign proves once again Turrell’s virtuosity in controlling the visual field. However, this particular work raises questions about the relationship between museum architecture and site-specific art installations.

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Afrum I (White) 1967

Notwithstanding the allusion that Turrell makes to the Guggenheim’s round atrium space with his six-step oval cone of light, he treats the museum building as if it were just another Kunsthall to be incorporated into his work, devoid of its own particular architectural qualities and history.

But the siting of Wright’s edifice in New York was in fact a revolutionary act, by virtue of its defiance of the orthogonal, open and ‘democratic’ logic of the Manhattan street grid with its idiosyncratic, introverted and involuted geometric logic. In this sense, it is a more than intriguing premise to have Turrell offer his interpretation of an otherworldly, psychedelic atmosphere in a building that is, in itself, already all about interiority.

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Moreover, today, the notion of atmospheric interior seems more topical than ever, with the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk recently developing his theory of globalisation in terms of the history, ambience and morphology of human-made interiors in his book World Interior of Capital and the trilogy Spheres.

In this context, Étienne-Louis Boullée − who has famously been an inspiration to Turrell over the years − has been given the role of one of the principal protagonists of such a spatial episteme. Yet Turrell chose to obstruct the visual dialogue between the temporary installation’s discrete oval rings and the soaring spiral of Wright’s exhibition path.

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While Wright had reinvented the notion of a centraldome by making its concave space accessible to the kinetic and visual experience of the museum visitor, Turrell reverts to the conventional idea of a distant sky-bound dome ‘up there’, sitting on top of a centralised, architectural space.

Somehow, in this specific work, the concept of visual Ganzfeld only applies to the framed field of the elliptic cupola, but excludes the architectural space ‘down here’ which the visitor inhabits. The view to the atrium from the winding ramps of the museum is closed off by Turrell with more opaque fabric, and these surfaces do not participate in the shifting light and colour play of the main space.

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Aten Reign has no backside.You realise that when divested of the only spatial benefit these side spaces have (which has to do with their visual and acoustic connection to the open atrium), they acquire the charm and interest of airport corridors, where certain sections are patched up while under construction; the visual attention is drawn to the air vents, the light fixtures and electric switches: ‘Pardon our Appearance’.

It appears that the Turrell show at the Guggenheim is yet another chapter in the controversy about art exhibits in generic white cube galleries versus signature architecture museums. You would assume, however, that spaces with an architectural intentionality comparable to the one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim are scarce enough throughout the world that an artist would seize the opportunity and face the challenge to create a work which could not be reproduced anywhere else. Aten Reign can be mounted in any space that holds a volume of roughly 65 feet wide and 95 feet high.

FACT FILE

Photographs: James Turrell, Stedelijk Museum, Florian Holzherr and David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

James Turrell: Aten Reign

Where: Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, New York

When: Until 25 September 2013

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