On the way to Arizona
This minor James Turrell retrospective by the Fondation Electricite de France, complete with a newly commissioned Wedge Work light installation, marks the 10-year anniversary of its Espace Electra, and is a reminder of Turrell's continuing vast 'ear thwork' project in Arizona, Roden Crater, due to become operational in October 2001 (after 25 years in development).
Although Turrell has made the Arizona desert his home, he was born of Franco-Irish parents, and many important works are now in French public collections. It was in Poitiers in 1991 that Turrell constructed his Heavywater installation, perhaps the most complete realisation of his intentions for the viewer, in which visitors had to undergo submersion in order to swim up into a 'skyspace'.
The principal accomplishment of this present exhibition is its survey of Turrell's working process.
There are many plans, drawings and prints, and a sequence of large plaster models of the halfburied viewing chambers of Roden Crater. These are all accomplished works in themselves, well executed 'art objects', but they are, by varying degrees, emptied of Turrell's intended relationship to his viewer. If Roden Crater were not an imminent reality, we would be passing through a museum of fragments to the project that was James Turrell.
Between the plans on the one hand, and the light installation on the other, there are a number of drawings and prints which simulate the sensory effects of the complete environments. Notable in this respect is First Light, a series of 20 aquatints which evoke shifting projections of a sequence of shapes-of-light about a corner of a room. Extracted from the collection of the Bibliotheque de France, the piece benefits here from the most sophisticated of directional lighting.
In Turrell's work, architecture is the support, or the stage, which will ultimately be dematerialised in favour of the transaction between light/space and the body. On a plan for Acropolis, Grand Centre Missouri, Turrell has pasted a monologue from the Greek play, Oresteia. In short, it provides an antique justification for Deconstructive architecture.
A central concern of Turrell's gallery 'light sculptures' is the apprehending of the act of perception itself, and the referral of the viewer to the conditions of a waking state; but this exhibition certainly draws out other issues. Notably, we are presented with the question of simulation versus authenticity, of what constitutes the authentic moment, and whether there is a dichotomy here at all. We are invited, in a sense, to fill the sepulchre-like plaster models of Roden Crater with our expectations of eventually being in the Hopi tribe's heartland beneath the Arizona sky. Yet the neon, wedge-shaped light work on the first floor of Espace Electra still has a genuine spiritual currency - it slows and enfeebles us, drawing us into the presence of our own sensory limits.
Robin Wilson writes on art and architecture