The primary medium of Californian artist James Turrell is light. According to the artist, Ganzfeld is an art installation that slows viewers to a standstill, practically forcing them to succumb to another way of looking. As he puts it, Ganzfeld is creating experiences that allow viewers to “see themselves see.”
“Ganzfeld” is a German word that describes the phenomenon of perceptual deprivation. For more than forty years Turrell accompanied by other artists, and psychologists is experimenting on this provocation of our perception. Inspired by this phenomenon, James Turrell stimulates the conditions that we rarely meet in the real, natural world, in a museum.
Arctic explorers or pilots navigating dense fog, usually experience the “Ganzfeld effect”. When everything in the visual field is the same color and brightness, the visual system shuts down. This happens because of what scientists call “sensory deprivation”. White is black, is nothing, is everything. When this occurs for an extended period, the person is subject to phantasmagoric hallucinations: the “prisoner’s cinema” experienced in isolation cells or collapsed mines.
This phenomenon has been studied in psychology labs (Ganzfeld Experiment). It has been most studied with vision by staring at an undifferentiated and uniform field of color. The visual effect is described as the loss of vision as the brain cuts off the unchanging signal from the eyes. The result is “seeing black”apparent blindness. It can also elicit hallucinatory percepts in many people, in addition to an altered state of consciousness.
James Turrell has no intension to create a dark space like a camera obscura, neither a torture cell. He wants to provoke our perception via a playful and pleasant scene full of light and color. He presents us an empty space, a pure light and space installation where simplicity becomes almost divine. The bright colors are even more surprising and act as a bait for the viewer. Turrell’s work is calling him to come closer, to follow the vibes and experience a Ganzfeld.
As minutes pass by, the “entrapment” of the viewer is getting more and more inevitable. The lights and the colors disappear, everything is black now. There is no visual field, there is nothing to see, nothing to feel. The human body and mind have nothing to trust and perception is now helpless. Is it real? No, it is not. This is only a provocation, a challenge of our perception and another experiment for psychology of perception. Otherwise these are always in the core of interest for Turrell’s work.
Turrell was born in Pasadena, California. He received a BA degree from Pomona College in perceptual psychology in 1965 (including the study of the Ganzfeld effect) and also studied mathematics, geology and astronomy there. Turrell received an MA degree in art from Claremont Graduate School, University of California, Irvine in 1966. He is a key artist in the Southern California Light and Space movement of the 1960s and 70s.
James Turrell: A Retrospective at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) explores nearly fifty years in the career of James Turrell. The opening of the exhibition took place on on 26 May 2013 and it will last until April 6, 2014.