james turrell interview on 'the light inside people'

james turrell interview on 'the light inside people'

‘everyone has a light in them and we come together to find that light in us again and again.’


whether diffused, pleasant, emotional, intellectual or even threatening, light is something james turrell considers to be an essential nutrient — ‘almost like food’. the artist has spent his life studying and engaging with light and space, with a prolific body of work featured across the globe testing the limits human perception. drawn by a training in perceptual psychology and a childhood fascination with light, turrell’s first experiments in 1960s southern california would later form the groundwork for his skyspaces, projection pieces, ganzfelds, perceptual cells, and the monumental ‘roden crater’, now in its final stages of development.


in this second edition of ‘creative strategies’ — a series of artist interview documents produced by designboom in collaboration with novelist anne philippi — james turrell discusses life in cities, being a quaker, and of course light — the kind that you might ‘only know from dreams’.

james turrell interview
the east portal of ‘roden crater’, an unprecedented large-scale artwork created within a volcanic cinder cone
see more about the project on designboom here
image by florian holzherr (also main image), courtesy of james turrell 



designboom: is there any news about roden crater?


james turrell (JT): not really. but it gets better and better. I think it looks like its own planet lately. I like that. this kind of landscape makes it clear to me that we are not eternally here on earth and in principle counts a very different sense of time than what we have in the cities.

james turrell interview
the artist’s lifelong research in the field of human visual and psychological perception culminates as ‘roden crater’
image by florian holzherr, courtesy of james turrell



DB: let’s talk about the city of los angeles. you just said that the bad taste of the city means great freedom for artists. is that still true, now that everything gets hipper every hour?


JT: it meant freedom to me at the time, even though I wanted to go to new york. but then there was not much space for studios in santa monica and new york. so I stayed here. los angeles was also the real america with all its car culture, which I found increasingly interesting. you need to know, when I started to make art, there was art mostly only in a picture frame and you could see a work only from a distance in the museum. that’s what inspired me – this artificial, new america. but I do not think about ‘cities’ so much anymore. I live more ‘placeless’ than ever and I think we are no longer defined by our family of origin. above all, artists today live like a worldwide tribe. I have a community in every city in the world. so I do not think in the category ‘city’ anymore.

james turrell interview
‘skyspace lech’, contained within an unassuming stone structure, is located within the arlberg mountains of austria
read more about the project on designboom here
image by florian holzherr, courtesy of james turrell



DB: but the art world loves los angeles more and more.


JT: yeah, funny isn’t it? I lived in los angeles for a long time and nothing happened. now something happens and I live everywhere, just not there. nevertheless, there is a whole new collector community within the IT-world, which I find interesting. california is suddenly an art market.

james turrell interview
‘light reignfall’, a personal perceptual cell and spherical projection chamber, was exhibited at LACMA
read more about the project on designboom here 
image by andrew van baal



DB: at that time you seemed to be very close to the californian culture, also to the hippie protest culture there. as a young man you spent some time in prison because you helped people avoid being drafted during the vietnam war. what exactly did you do?


JT: I sought out lawyers, but also tracked down doctors who diagnosed eye problems in some potential recruits. from today’s perspective, this war is a strange episode of our country. we bombed vietnam and flew to the moon at a similar time, full of optimism. but that’s america. brutal destruction and beautiful optimism go hand in hand.

james turrell interview
‘breathing light’ was on view at LACMA as part of a monumental retrospective 
read more about the project on designboom here
image by florian holzherr, courtesy of james turrell 



DB: did your anti-war attitude also have something to do with your being a quaker?


JT: yes, we quakers find war repugnant and do not want to have anything to do with it. more so, we also help other people not to be forced to participate in war. that is anchored in this belief. we adhere to certain essential principles – mainly, that everyone has a light in them and we come together to find that light in us again and again.

james turrell interview
installations and sensory environments were exhibited at villa panza in italy back in 2015
read more about the project on designboom here
image by simone bossi, courtesy of FAI villa e collezione panza



DB: is the reason for your obsession with light — a religious and not a scientific one in the end?


JT: for me, light is nutrition, almost like food. and I’m concerned with the light inside people. when you close your eyes or dream, you see a different light than with your eyes open. we usually use light to illuminate the things around us. but I am interested in the very personal, inner light.

james turrell interview
artworks were integrated into the spaces of the italian villa-turned-gallery-space
image by simone bossi, courtesy of FAI villa e collezione panza



DB: there are museum visitors who can not cope with this light. during the ‘light & space’ show at the whitney museum, a woman sued the museum after breaking her arm because one of your ‘illusions’ disoriented her. do you find that absurd or understandable?


JT: what should I say? in the installations, people get involved in light and expect it to be a beautiful, soft light, as they know from their living room. but here is where we come to another topic. the relationship between the audience and the artist is not an intimate one for me. it should be strange. and show what’s wrong. in this regard I think we live in a strange culture. people sue because they get injured in an art exhibit, but volunteer to go rock climbing in the desert.

james turrell interview
james turrell’s immersive work ‘encounter’ is the first public skyspace in latin america
read more about the project on designboom here 
image by savvy studio



DB: I have to say, I got dizzy in the ‘breathing light’ room at LACMA and the light in it forced me to my knees. is that part of your intention?


JT: yes. I tried to create a ‘white-out’ situation in this room. this is diffused light, where there is no shadow, no horizon, like for example, when a pilot loses himself in a cloud. that’s just not a nice, pleasant light. it is threatening. it’s like being trapped in a cloud. you feel like in a cyberspace and lose your sense of gravity. you feel like you’re in a light that you only know from dreams.


(editor’s note: the complete loss of depth perception, as in a white-out, the so-called ‘ganzfeld effect’ was discovered by wolfgang metzger, a german psychologist, in the 1930s and sparked turrell’s idea for a similarly disorienting series of pieces using light to mimic the effect).

james turrell interview
detail of ‘encounter’, which is located in the lush green botanical gardens of culiacan, mexico 
image by savvy studio



DB: did you actually study freud and jung on the topic of dream light?


JT: no. that is only something for dramatic europeans. 

james turrell interview
turrell and architects schmidt hammer lassen have unveiled dynamic plans for denmark art museum extension
read more about the project on designboom here
image by morten fauerby, courtesy of SML architects



DB: are there any particular expressions of light in art that impress you?


JT: sure, I like to look at caravaggio’s work, he stands for emotional light. in contrast to the intellectual light of vermeer or the expressionist light of turner. I also like the way the impressionists depict light and how they use coal in their drawings. this has something physical and always reminds me of my youth in the 50s. at that time, the garbage was being burnt daily in LA, creating a strange, impressionistic mist over the city. today I look at the chemtrails, those white lines created by the increased air traffic in los angeles, which are signs of heavy air pollution leaving kerosene in a much higher sphere. but we look at it, because it looks nice.


DB: …although it is dangerous. this is not unlike your light rooms, right? I read in a review that your art would expect viewers to surrender to the light situation, to stop resisting and virtually play along when the light does something to them. do you want that?


JT: yes, surrender for something different. for example, if I have to read over hours of old magazines at the doctor’s and then have to take off my clothes for the purpose of examination. but I know what you mean. art critic clement greenberg once said that my work was theatrical. I said to him ‘and? what is the criticism exactly? you probably just do not like theater‘.



creative strategies

interview conducted by anne philippi, half french, half german author and novelist.

anne worked as a reporter for vogue, vanity fair, rolling stones, GQ, die zeit, die welt, FAZ and süddeutsche zeitung and in 2015 published the novel ‘giraffen’. she currently resides in los angeles and berlin.

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