Painting with light: James Turrell's A retrospective | HerCanberra

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Painting with light: James Turrell’s A retrospective

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I walked into the National Gallery of Australia recently and shocked everyone around me by shoving my head through an artwork.

The fact that I didn’t a) get concussion, or b) get arrested is due to the extraordinary ability of contemporary American artist, James Turrell.

For more than 40 years Turrell has used light, colour and space to create art that audiences can immerse themselves in. Afrum, the piece I stuck my head through, wasn’t solid, Turrell’s use of light and colour creates blockades that seem impenetrable but in reality aren’t even there.


Afrum (white) 1966 Cross-corner projection: projected light Los Angeles County Museum of Art © James Turrell. Photograph © Florian Holzherr

In another space, visitors don disposable booties and climb a short flight of stairs to enter a white space where floor, walls and ceiling blend together. Colour blocks saturate the space to make you feel you are suspended by light, changing and flowing around you.  The light show seems to extend to the room directly outside, with contrasting colours lighting up the wall. In reality the outside colour is just your eyes balancing out the light surrounding you.


Virtuality squared 2014. Ganzfeld: built space, LED lights (800 x 1400 x 1940.5 cm overall) Collection James Turrell. Photograph: National Gallery of Australia

Turrell has said of his work, “We eat light, we drink it through our skins. With a little more exposure to light you feel part of things physically.”

A premium ticket to the retrospective gains entry to Turrell’s installation work, Perceptual cell, Bindu shards. Every 15 minutes a solo viewer lies on their back and enters a spherical capsule that looks like a sci-fi version of an MRI machine, while white clad technicians monitor their reactions to a kaleidoscope of colour and sound. Each session lasts for 15 minutes to create a rather intense experience that Turrell describes as “behind the eyes seeing”. Bookings are available for the experience where you can choose the soft or hard version, however it’s worth noting that this experience is not suitable for those who are epileptic.


Bindu shards 2010. Perceptual cell: fiberglass and metal. Light program 420.8 x 653.1 x 607.1 cm (sphere). National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, purchased 2014 Photo: National Gallery of Australia

Turrell’s work has been a part of the NGA for several years. One of my favourite places in Canberra is the grass covered pyramid surrounded by water directly outside the gallery, titled Within, without. Inside visitors can sit along a curved wall and watch the sun’s progression across a skylight. It’s peaceful and serene, and an example of why Turrell says, “I am not an earth artist. I am totally involved in the sky.”


Within without 2010. Skyspace: lighting installation, concrete and basalt stupa, water, earth, landscaping. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra © James Turrell. Photograph: John Gollings

Within, without is a good introduction to the piece Turrell has been working on since 1979 turning a 400,000 year old, 600 foot extinct volcano in Arizona into a naked eye observatory. The exhibition contains scale models and 3D imaging of Turrell’s opus at Roden Crater and despite its location on the other side of the world, visitors to Canberra can get a glimpse into the passion that sustains him in the work. Visitors booking before February for the exhibition can enter a competition to win a trip to Arizona to see and experience it first hand.

There are some practicalities to consider with the NGA’s staging of this retrospective.

With so much of the work using colour shafts projected in completely dark spaces or confined areas, tickets are sold in time blocks. And once in the exhibition some galleries only accommodate eight visitors at a time. This means there’s a bit of waiting to move between galleries. I’m not sure the waiting and entry into inky black rooms would suit children, although the day I went there were several families attending and no one seemed fractious, bored or scared by the unexpected dark. As thrilling as I found it to walk with my hands in front of me into the unknown while my eyes adjusted to limited light, I noticed some people around me were a little agitated.

My advice is to take your time, don’t rush. The timed entry means no crowds and you won’t bump into things. As I found out when my head disappeared, things I thought I was seeing didn’t exist. It’s an art experience I won’t forget in a hurry.

The essentials

What: James Turrell: A retrospective
Where: National Gallery of Australia
When: Showing until June 2015. 10am-4pm Monday to Thursday; 10am-6pm Friday; 9am-6pm Saturday; and 9am-4pm Sunday
How much: General admission starts at $25.50 for general admission and $45.88 for Premium entry including the Perceptual Cell experience.
Web: Visit for prices.

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