James Turrell


Eyes by Daniel Birnbaum, teacher of Philosophy at the University of Stockholm and art critic for Dagens Nyheter (1996).

Exhibition catalogue no 6.
32 pages, color, soft cover. Texts in Swedish/English.
Published 1996 by Magasin 3 Stockholm Konsthall.


Eyes by Daniel Birnbaum

“Optics, that develops in us as we study, teaches us to see”. Paul Cézanne

“There is no such thing as phenomenology, but there are indeed phenomenological problems”. Ludwig Wittgenstein

It does not happen very often that I am alone, really alone. The mere absence of other people is not enough to create the condition I am thinking of. The objects which surround me evoke a world completely determined by human relationships: discussions, conflicts, time spent together. Though alone in my home, I am still not alone. It has happened, though: I wake up in the middle of the night in a pitch-dark hotel room in a strange town – alone. I am immersed in snow and mist in the Austrian Alps; no other skiers are near by. My field of vision is redu-ced to one single white dazzling totality – I am alone. A vague sense of uncertainty as to one’s own existence accompanies these experiences: Where am I? – Who am I? Soon everything is back to normal; the world I share with everyone else asserts itself once more. A third example: I am walking through Soho in New York on a cold February day. Plenty of people and cars in the streets. But the gallery is empty. I walk down a black corridor which bends several times so that no light reaches the room which opens up at the very back. Absolute blackness, silence. Total solitude. A barely perceptible drone coming from another part of the building can be heard. Slowly light appears, faintly but increasingly clearly. Is it outside me or does it come from within my own eyes? What is inside and what is outside? Does that which we refer to as “I” begin behind our eyelids? It is an installation by James Turrell that inspires these ponderings: “A Frontal Passage”, shown at Barbara Gladstone Gallery in February 1994. I return to it many times. If other visitors whisper and crowd in there I refrain from entering and come back later. It has not happened very often that I have been so possessed by an artwork. It does not happen very often in today’s art world that a work has such an existential impact on me. Turrell’s “Frontal Passage” affects me in such a way – the first time and every time I return. What is Turrell’s art about? About light and perception, one feels tempted to answer. Perhaps it would be more correct to say: his art is light and perception.’ Turrell’s works do not represent anything. They are themselves: light and darkness, space and perception. His installations manipulate the conditions of our perception rather than present objects of aesthetic contemplation. This is art liberated from all objects. It is not about what is before, but rather what is behind our eyes – about the preconditions of seeing and the limits of perceptions. “There was no object, nothing but a relationship to the sky”, the Italian collector Panza di Biumo observed after having visited Turrell in Santa Monica. Well before he exhibited at a gallery, Turrell had developed the basic principles governing his artistic investigation of natural and artificial light: light projected onto walls, celestial light filtering through shutters, one architectonic space lighting up another. Turrell’s art is about the ability of light to fill up a space and saturate it with seeing. Thus, seeing itself becomes visible – you see yourself see. In Turrell’s words: “I am really interested in the qualities of one space sensing another. It is like looking at someone looking. Objectivity is gained by being once re-moved. As you plumb a space with vision, it is possible to ‘see yourself see’. This seeing, this plumbing, imbues space with consciousness.”‘

The Visible
In a dialogue entitled ‘”Me Rainbow” Walter Benjamin dreams about a deeper form of seeing: “This is what it was like in dreams, I was nothing but seeing. All other senses had been forgotten, had disappeared. I myself did not exist, nor did my intellect which infers what things are like from the images presented by the senses. I was not somebody seeing but only seeing. And what I saw was not the objects, but only colors.’ Benjamin talks about a kind of seeing which is so intense that the person seeing is annihilated and vanishes into the act of seeing and making visible. This dream vision can serve as a starting-point for a discussion of the place of seeing and color in philosophy; and about the philosophical reflection on the work of art. To a higher degree than any other philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty has made painting the point of departure for his thought. In “Eye and Mind” he prophesies about future thinking: “This philosophy still to be done is that which animates the painter – not when he expresses his opinion about the world, but in that instant when his vision becomes gesture, when, in Cézanne’s words, he thinks ‘in painting’.” In Merleau-Ponty’s case, we are not dealing with a philosopher interested in painting who writes incisive analyses of the work of Cézanne and Klee, but with a kind of thinking whose very basis is inspired by painting and which makes the painter’s at once passive and creative eye the model of philosophy: the painter receives and represents the visible world in a more primordial way than the reflective philosopher (…)

(Excerpt form the catalogue text Eyes by Daniel Birnbaum, 1996.)