Space Conditioning: James Turrell and Las Vegas

James Turrell, Akhob, 2013, installation. Photo Florian Holzherr.


There are many venues to experience James Turrell’s art of light and space this summer, but comparatively few opportunities to reflect on the importance of place in his work. The Arizona-based artist known for his spectacular installations that promise to transform viewers’ perception—”My art is about your seeing,” he has said—is having a retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (through Apr. 6, 2014) and a major solo exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston (through Sept. 22). At the Guggenheim Museum, New York, (through Sept. 25) Turrell’s monumental Aten Reign (2013) transforms the iconic Frank Lloyd Wright-designed atrium, bathing the entire space in a field of light that cycles through a spectrum of colors, from pale white to deep magenta.

For Turrell and many of his critics, this use of pure light as a medium facilitates experiences that border on the sacred. Turrell has said, “Light is not so much something that reveals as it is itself the revelation.” Critics attempting to describe Turrell’s installations often rely on terms like “magical” and “transcendent.” Some claim that because Turrell’s work is so intertwined with individual perceptions of light and space, it eludes language altogether. Bemoaning the difficulty of describing the subtle effects of Turrell’s environments, a New York Times Magazine cover feature proposed that the work was “simply too far removed from the language of reality, or for that matter, from reality itself.”

But perhaps a suitable vocabulary can be found in a place that is already at a considerable remove from reality: the Las Vegas Strip. Turrell has recently produced a series of works inside Crystals, a high-end shopping center designed by architect Daniel Libeskind. Part of MGM Grand’s CityCenter complex of condos, casinos, hotels and restaurants, Crystals embodies an image of Las Vegas at its most luxurious. Hermès, Fendi, Gucci and other top brands all have stores there; Louis Vuitton’s Las Vegas flagship anchors the development. (MGM Grand invited A.i.A. to view its art collection, providing travel and lodging.)

Turrell’s work is a prominent part of any visit to Crystals. Four large-scale “space division” pieces—fields of colored light that occupy geometric apertures cut into a sharply angled wall—rise above a central shopping space, nearly overshadowing an adjacent sign for the Aria Resort and Casino. Turrell has also created an immersive light environment inside the shopping center’s tram station. Those waiting for transportation between Crystals and other CityCenter facilities can enjoy a space saturated with Turrell’s lights while listening to the pop music soundtrack that animates the rest of the building.

Turrell’s most ambitious project at Crystals, however, is also the least conspicuous to casual visitors. Located inside the Louis Vuitton store, Akhob (2013), named after an ancient Egyptian word for pure water, is an example of what Turrell calls a “ganzfeld,” a complete light field. In theory, anyone who makes a reservation can experience Akhob, but access to the piece can feel like an exclusive privilege. Nothing in the three-story Louis Vuitton store indicates the presence of a major artwork nearby. Visitors who do have reservations take an elevator to a private reception area away from the main retail space. It would be a comfortable place to wait for an appointment with a medical specialist, except that it is dimly lit to encourage retinal acclimation. Previously, visitors to the Louis Vuitton store might have been discerning consumers attuned to details of fabric and stitching; once inside the Akhob office, the same visitors are encouraged to focus instead on their own perception, or what Turrell calls “behind-the-eyes seeing.”

Two young women dressed entirely in white lead visitors to an antechamber, where shoes are removed and those entering the work are advised to notify the attendants in case of distress. The main part of Akhob, accessed from the antechamber via an oval portal, comprises two chambers, the second larger than the first, and both connected by another oval portal. The walls, ceiling and floor of both spaces merge in a continuous, rounded expanse of smooth white surface. The larger space culminates in an expansive translucent scrim. An even field of light emerges from a source impossible to pinpoint, filling the space with colors that change at a varying pace over the course of an approximately 24-minute cycle. Reflected off the nearly-featureless surfaces of what Turrell calls the “sensing space,” this light can be at times incredibly vibrant, or cold and metallic.

Staring into the void for an extended period can induce something like a meditative state, as visitors turn themselves over to the sophisticated lighting system, whose technical workings remain out of sight. Turrell’s descriptions of a physical experience of light in the ganzfeld feel correct. It can be a beautiful, strange experience. But the near-seamlessness of the effect invariably heightens any potential visual friction. The one major obstacle to revelation is undoubtedly the other four or five people allowed in the room at the same time. Their bodies assert the human scale of a space that could otherwise appear infinite.

A ganzfeld can also be an awkward social situation. Is there an appropriate topic of conversation in an environment designed to focus and expand individual perception? Or is it in poor taste to speak at all, as in a church (albeit a church inside a luxury shopping center)? Even during the rarefied moment of standing inside a ganzfeld, one can imagine how Akhob could be even better. About 10 minutes into the light cycle, and the heavy “sensing” begins, one might experience a strong desire for everyone else in the room simply to disappear, thus clearing the way for uninterrupted, unmediated perception.

Those who argue that Turrell’s works transcend language and everyday experience may have conflicted feelings about his projects in Las Vegas, with their close relationships to commerce and advertising. Turrell has spent decades building his masterpiece, the Roden Crater, a remote earthwork in Arizona that promises to place visitors in contact with the natural world, heightening their perceptions of the sky. To protect his view of the moon and stars, Turrell has even worked with other local residents to restrict outdoor lighting in the area. Las Vegas’s frantic, high-voltage skyline couldn’t be further from Turrell’s vision for the crater as a place for connecting with the heavens.

Yet in other ways Las Vegas, a city where dazzling light displays are integral to a thriving economy of pleasure, may provide the critical tension that Turrell’s meditation-inducing works often lack. Over the years, visitors to Las Vegas have celebrated the city as a font of creativity—if not in the traditional visual arts, then in the fields of lighting and environmental design. Tom Wolfe described Las Vegas as a place where perceptions could be alternately tweaked, heightened, focused and disoriented by a torrent of artificial light and sound. “Las Vegas has succeeded in wiring an entire city with electronic stimulation, day and night, out in the middle of the desert,” he wrote in a classic 1965 essay, creating a “marvelous impact on the senses.”

In the late 1960s, architecture critic Reyner Banham declared that the city was only “truly itself” when its dull, low-slung buildings were illuminated at night with vast marquees and signs. “What defines the symbolic places and spaces of Las Vegas,” Banham wrote in The Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment (1969), “is pure environmental power, manifested as colored light.” Anticipating some of Turrell’s own famous statements describing the “palpability” or “thingness” of light in ganzfelds, Banham argued that in Las Vegas, one could witness “the change from forms assembled in light to light assembled in forms.”

Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown also described the effects of light on the perception of space in their seminal Learning from Las Vegas (1972). Wandering through the city’s labyrinthine gaming spaces, the architects observed how casino lighting and interior design produced an experience of disorientation bordering on the sublime. “Time is limitless because the light of noon and midnight are exactly the same,” the architects observed. “Space is limitless, because the artificial light obscures rather than defines its boundaries.” Numerous subsequent critics including Jean Baudrillard have noted this effect as well, arguing that Las Vegas cultivates vanguard perceptual experiences, a postmodern “hyperreality.”

The phenomenal light and space environments that have lured critics and architects to Las Vegas remain unabashedly profit-minded, designed explicitly either to attract customers to casinos or discourage them from leaving. By contrast, Turrell’s works in Crystals are there for a subtler purpose: to underscore the development’s cultural sophistication. In a metropolitan area of nearly two million people that lacks a nonprofit art museum, Turrell’s contributions to Crystals are among the few examples of mainstream contemporary art on view in what passes for public space on the Strip. (MGM Grand’s invested $40 million in art for CityCenter. In addition to the Turrells, there are works by Nancy Rubin, Jenny Holzer, Richard Long and others.) Yet even while clearly marked as “art” in promotional literature and numerous signs around Crystals, Turrell’s pieces share the same basic vocabulary as the city’s celebrated achievements in architectural lighting design. To suggest this is merely to describe the conditions of the work: Turrell chose to illuminate the tram station, just as he chose to place his apertures in dialogue with the surrounding shop signs. “Las Vegas is about distraction,” Turrell has said, “it can take you off your regular game and you’re sort of wild eyed, sort of glazed looking at everything.” His works in Crystals try “to take advantage of that kind of situation.” Turrell seems almost to be quoting the spectacular effects of the illuminated Strip, setting them apart for aesthetic contemplation without isolating his light from the plurality of lights that surround it.

, inside the more private Louis Vuitton store, embodies a slightly different relationship to Las Vegas’s perceptual excess. Turrell describes himself as a “partner” with Louis Vuitton in developing Akhob, and the work can be understood as a kind of collaboration. This may be counterintuitive because of how thoroughly distanced the piece feels from any suggestion of commerce. There are no handbags in the ganzfeld. The sensing space is entirely free of Louis Vuitton’s distinctive monogram logo. The disposable white booties that visitors must wear to protect the white floors are decidedly “off brand,” and likely the most inelegant footwear ever dispensed by a Louis Vuitton employee.

In this sense, Akhob stands in contrast to many of Louis Vuitton’s other high-profile collaborations with artists. Richard Prince, Takashi Murakami and others have been invited in recent years to modify, or even openly vandalize, the company’s brand. Louis Vuitton creative director Marc Jacobs described this strategy as a kind of for-profit take on Dadaism. Hoping to mimic what “Duchamp had done with L.H.O.O.Q., by putting this moustache on [the Mona Lisa] and making it something hipper, a little bit anarchic, and just cooler,” Jacobs invited artists to appropriate and deface the LV logo, creating fresh new designs for exclusive hand bag lines. Whether interpreted as a strategic re-enactment of the death of the avant-garde by savvy artists, or simply a cynical money grab, the fact that Louis Vuitton recuperates the artists’ “anarchic” gesture for its own profit has to be understood as integral to Murakami or Prince’s work.

Such playful “brandalism” is anathema to Turrell’s project. Indeed, for an artist who operates a cattle ranch adjacent to Roden Crater, the very concept of “branding” may have entirely different connotations. So, at the very apex of Las Vegas’s retail sector—i.e., the Louis Vuitton flagship store on the Strip—visitors who enter Turrell’s piece are asked to forget precisely what they would normally do in Crystals—i.e., evaluate brands—and focus instead on their own experience of light. This is not the light that Émile Zola describes showering the goods in Parisian department stores in a hallucinatory glow, nor the glaring light of Parisian dance halls that Édouard Manet captures in paint, but a quarantined light, controlled and maintained apart from any overt exchange of goods and services.

Is it possible under these conditions to understand Akhob as a symbiotic expression of James Turrell’s vision and Louis Vuitton’s brand? Or has Turrell simply used corporate resources to realize a piece that rivals his museum works? Claire Bishop and other critics have pointed out the relationship between contemporary art and the new frontiers of experiential marketing. Artists who dispense with traditional objects to stage social interactions reproduce in certain ways the logic of sophisticated corporate branding efforts that are aimed at linking products to notions of community, creativity, fun and even social responsibility. Yet Turrell’s work offers not an authentic social interaction, but an encounter with ourselves, an experience of private contemplation that is rare on the Strip, and therefore precious. If this is a version of marketing, then the selling point is, paradoxically, the absence of marketing. If anything is branded it is “your seeing.”

It is important to insist that Turrell’s artworks deliver what they promise. The light does become dense and palpable, and its effects can be beautiful. It is really possible to “see yourself seeing,” to paraphrase one Turrell mantra. But when the transcendence comes to an end, one exits Akhob and waits for nightfall in a city that basks in worldly light.