WHAT DO YOU SEE?

We take light for granted, especially in SoCal where the sun shines almost every single day. And electricity is easily available everywhere. But what does light reveal and how much can you trust the image it reveals? Is light static? Does everyone see the same thing?

LA County Museum of Art has an enticing and curious exhibit for the next year of the works of James Turrell, who might well be named an artist of light as a creative medium. He teases our perception—how real is what you see?

Raemar Pink White, 1969

Raemar Pink White, 1969

The first test of this artistic reality is in a large room with a white cube in the corner. It looks real enough until you start walking toward this “projection piece,” which seems to float in the air. Soon, you see it is not a three-dimensional piece, it is actually flat, and consists of nothing but light. The illusion has tricked the observer as will many other illusionary light pieces throughout this large exhibit. After a few experiences of seeing how light can fool your vision, you may wonder how solid something “real” is. And as science has revealed, things may look solid but they aren’t.

Turrell, who was honored with the MacArthur “genius” fellowship, was born in Southern California and has spent 50 years exploring the properties of light, especially as it relates to the perception of humans. He likes to tease your mind, it seems. His exhibits occupied the entire second floor of the Broad Contemporary Art museum building. His works included holograms, which were hung in one area. There were several darkened rooms where a few observers at a time could see a variety of images in different colors (each room was unique) usually projected onto one wall.   By moving toward and then away from the projected vision, the observer could see the lines of the images disappear or change shapes.  We may have noticed these types of effects in everyday life, but in this large venue, the effects are more visible and amazing.

My favorite was the last exhibit room, which required some preparation. Visitors had to remove their shoes first and then were required to wear disposable booties on their feet! A few of them at a time were allowed to walk up a wide staircase to enter a specially designed and very large rectangular room, open only on the side where we entered. We were warned to walk slowly since the floor slanted downward. The room was filled with bright pinkish-white light that emanated from all sides and surfaces—floor, ceiling, and sidewalls, but there were no angles. The sidewalls curved into the floor and ceiling, which created a comfortable but mystical aura.

When I walked in, I remarked to the museum guide, “And God said, let there be light.” It resembled a heaven of sorts or special effects in a movie.  The entire room glowed softly with the longest wall reminding me of a movie screen. As the small group stood quietly, the encompassing glowing light filled the room and slowly and subtly changed its shade from pink to purple to blue and then to pink again.  I think I’ll visit it again before the exhibit is over next year.  I still have my booties!

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