James Turrell


Eyes, essay by Daniel Birnbaum, Swedish Art Critic and Curator

Exhibition catalogue no 12
No of pages:
32, color, illustrated
soft cover

Language: Swedish and English
Year: 1996
Publisher: Magasin 3 Stockholm Konsthall


Eyes by Daniel Birnbaum

It does not happen very often that I am alone, really alone. The mere absence of other people is not enough to create the condition I am thinking of. The objects which surround me evoke a world completely determined by human relationships: discussions, conflicts, time spent together. Though alone in my home, I am still not alone.

It has happened, though: I wake up in the middle of the night in a pitch-dark hotel room in a strange town – alone. I am immersed in snow and mist in the Austrian Alps; no other skiers are near by. My field of vision is reduced to one single white dazzling totality – I am alone.

A vague sense of uncertainty as to one’s own existence accompanies these experiences: Where am I? – Who am I? Soon everything is back to normal; the world I share with everyone else asserts itself once more.

A third example: I am walking through Soho in New York on a cold February day. Plenty of people and cars in the streets. But the gallery is empty. I walk down a black corridor which bends several times so that no light reaches the room which opens up at the very back. Absolute blackness, silence. Total solitude.

A barely perceptible drone coming from another part of the building can be heard. Slowly light appears, faintly but increasingly clearly.

Is it outside me or does it come from within my own eyes? What is inside and what is outside? Does that which we refer to as “I” begin behind our eyelids?

It is an installation by James Turrell that inspires these ponderings: “A Frontal Passage”, shown at Barbara Gladstone Gallery in February 1994. I return to it many times. If other visitors whisper and crowd in there I refrain from entering and come back later. It has not happened very often that I have been so possessed by an artwork. It does not happen very often in today’s art world that a work has such an existential impact on me. Turrell’s “Frontal Passage” affects me in such a way – the first time and every time I return.

What is Turrell’s art about? About light and perception, one feels tempted to answer. Perhaps it would be more correct to say: his art is light and perception. Turrell’s works do not represent anything. They are themselves: light and darkness, space and perception. His installations manipulate the conditions of our perception rather than present objects of aesthetic contemplation. This is art liberated from all objects. It is not about what is before, but rather what is behind our eyes – about the preconditions of seeing and the limits of perceptions. (…)