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Turrell trips the light fantastic

James Turrell was in Cornwall for the solar eclipse, creating an artwork specially for it, but the experience taught him never again to depend on British skies in his work, for heavy cloud cover ensured the failure of the piece as a walk-in pin-hole camera through which to view the event.

The character of Turrell's art has changed somewhat in recent years: he is working less with artificially-produced light than formerly, and more with the skies and natural light in all its variations. This allows him less control over his installations - though the mere fact of having an audience means there has always been the potential for unexpected hazard. He was 'in litigation' for three years with a woman who leaned back against one of his walls of light in a gallery, believing it to be a physical construction, and fell and broke her wrist. He also found himself involved in the plight of 700 Japanese viewers of a TV cartoon who were rushed to hospital with epileptic fits. It transpired that the cartoonist had borrowed the computer program for one of Turrell's works, involving repeated bursts of light, and incorporated it in the animation.

This piece was one of a series of what Turrell calls 'more invasive' works, intended to investigate the process of how we see in both physical and perceptual terms. They followed the earlier period of works exploring the way that light defines and delimits physical space, including the frames and walls of coloured light which are fairly well-known to architects. Turrell's mission, one might say, is to open people's eyes to the 'physicality of light', which, certainly in the western world, we are barely aware of because of the constant, unnecessarily high levels of unmodulated light in the environment.

Turrell was brought up in the Quaker tradition, where light has a particular symbolism and significance: he speaks of the invitation to 'greet the light' at Quaker meetings. This has contributed to his fascination, both scientific and almost mystical, with light and the way it affects our perception of our place in the world; he also suggests that some ideas in quantum theory have imbued light with a kind of 'consciousness': light can be shown to react under the gaze of the eye. 'Light actually knows when we are looking', he says.

His latest project is by far his most ambitious, and leads on from works such as the Elliptic Ecliptic in Cornwall and other sky-viewing pavilions - several of which have been commissioned by clients as little pieces of garden architecture. The Roden Crater project in America has been in hand for some 30 years, involving the purchase of a defunct volcano, and the remodelling of the crater to provide a series of viewing chambers from which to gaze into the 'celestial vaulting', continuing a historic tradition of architecture designed to 'change the shape of the sky'. 'We need to see into the sky', maintains Turrell, 'because it is part of the territory which we inhabit, if we can see it - but we can't if we light it up.' A fitting sentiment in the aftermath of the eclipse.

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