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Seeing the Light

As the Contemporary Arts Museum guard pulls back the curtain to James Turrell's installation Night Light, he instructs you to follow a handrail through a winding corridor into a pitch-dark room. Ascending a ramp, you cling blindly to the walls and rail for support. In the blackness, your vision turns inward.

After you're seated in the viewing chamber, your eyes go to work adjusting to the darkness; the retina's cones, which sense bright light, give way to the rods. You wait silently and patiently, increasingly aware of your own breathing. Implicitly, Turrell asks you to trust, let go and give yourself to the dark.

After several minutes, you continue to see nothing, save for a faint red glow that expands, contracts and disappears. Undulating blobs of blue and fluorescent green float before your eyes, unanchored by scale and distance -- the same sort of blobs you'd see if you closed your eyes. You wonder: Are these part of Turrell's projection, or are they products of your own optic system? Are they "illusions" -- tricks of the eye to fool the mind? Is the light coming from outside or from within?

As the boundary between inner and outer worlds vanishes, you confront a dilemma similar to that of philosopher Chuang Tzu: Awakening from a dream, he did not know whether he was a man dreaming that he was a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming that he was a man. For a few minutes, you, too, exist in a state of suspension. It knows neither birth nor death; it exists in an everlasting now; it just is.

For more than three decades, James Turrell's ambition has been to reveal to us the extraordinary properties -- physical, symbolic and psychic -- of everyday light. In his ethereal environments, light seems almost palpable; he uses it the way a painter uses paint.

Born in Los Angeles in 1943, he majored in psychology and participated as an artist in scientific experiments with anechoic chambers, biofeedback devices and ganzfelds. Since 1966, all of his pieces -- quartz-halogen projections, fluorescent space constructions, wedges of artificial light, apertures onto natural illumination -- have been concerned with light as the fabricator of illusion.

Since the early '70s, he's worked on a legendary project to hollow out an extinct volcanic crater. Piloting his own plane around the Southwest, he searched seven months for the right place to create an effect he describes as "celestial vaulting," in which the sky seems a low ceiling, rather than infinite and untouchable. He found the Roden Crater, north of Flagstaff, Arizona, and is now shaping it into an interactive light sculpture and observatory, one that will include serpentine tunnels, moonlit crannies, luminescent chambers carved in rock and subterranean pools whose appearance will change depending on the position of celestial bodies. If all goes as planned, the Crater Project will be completed in the year 2000.

At the Contemporary Arts Museum, "Spirit and Light" transforms the museum into a series of magical spaces where we can go and dream. Organized by CAM curator Lynn Herbert, the exhibition surveys Turrell's work from 1966 to 1998. It includes six light chambers and "First Light" (1989 90), a series of 20 luminous aquatint prints.

Turrell's installations are not simply about the voluptuous act of looking; he makes the viewer conscious of his sleight of hand. The openings of Flash and Zorkoff are the size and shape of a standard TV screen. On those "screens" flickers a light so mesmerizing that the viewer feels an urge to reach out and touch the pure color. Perhaps the screen is a smoky sheet of glass? But no -- it's only a hole in the wall, looking into an inaccessible small space that seems filled with mist. The surprise -- "substance" changed into nothingness -- is both intense and subtle, like waking from a dream.

In Afrum-Proto, one of Turrell's earliest works, a quartz-halogen projector directs a high-intensity beam onto a corner. The light creates the illusion of a three-dimensional object somehow attached to the two walls. But as you approach the cube, its three-dimensionality dissolves; you recognize it for what it is, a beam of light. Stepping back, you're amazed that, though you no longer believe in the illusion, you're fully able to recover it.

Later installations display even more metaphysical grace. As with Night Light, you enter Atlan (1995) through darkened, mazelike entrances. Standing in the dimly lit space of Atlan, you see what appears to be a dark, monochromatic painting. Over 20 minutes, it changes to a luminous blue field that seemingly envelops you in twilight. Still, it's impossible to determine what the flat rectangle is -- at least, until you approach the wall and see that it's not an opaque painting at all, but a huge windowlike aperture.

The blue light inside seems to have physical heft -- to be watery, perhaps. The eerie blue space seems both related to divinity and oddly threatening; you think of heaven, of the formless universe. Your arm goes through the wall as if you were a ghost. It's a space you can't quite grasp, a space that keeps its secrets, even when exposed as emptiness.

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