Artworks increasingly have to compete for our already divided attention. Pause for a moment in any gallery to observe the other visitors and you will see that most media don’t manage to hold us for very long. A painting might receive a few seconds of looking – more for the caption, if there is one – before the viewer moves on to the next thing. The static medium of painting could be accused these days of not trying hard enough to get and hold our attention. Time-based media has it easier. The expectation that something might happen next may, if the artwork is fortunate, be enough to hold its viewer for a bit longer. But even then, narrative forms can struggle in a gallery environment.
In this respect, the work of James Turrell sits somewhere between painting and video. The materiality of painting is dissolved into pure light and colour. Planes of colour float in recesses at an indeterminate distance. Curious onlookers will peer around the edges to see the workings, but they are concealed from view. There may be a glass screen, the light may be projected, but what and how is withheld.
The immateriality of the work contrasts with Dan Flavin’s pieces currently on show at Tate Modern. Flavin’s signature fluorescent tubes are out in the open and become sculptural. The various arrangements of tubes against the wall is as much part of the work as the various colours of light employed. With Turrell, there is more mystery. The press release might mention sheets of glass and LED light sources, but all we can see is coloured light. And unlike the harshness of an uncovered fluorescent, Turrell’s light is both inviting and potentially absorbing of our attention.
A glance at one of these pieces might suggest that it is a static projection, however subtle. But all four installations are gradually modulating themselves, so the reward is only fully gained by remaining for a while. One colour dissolves into a haze. Another appears at the edges. A horizontal band appears, only to dissolve again. As one waits more subtle changes emerge, as do questions. How much of our experience is in the piece, and how much the retinal effects? Occasional interference patterns seem to emerge, some transitions seem more abrupt than others. Suddenly – or it seems so, once one has settled into the pace of change of each piece – there may be a flood of a brand new colour. If one remains long enough, one might start to wonder if there is repetition in the sequence or endless variation. With so little in the way of visual anchors, it is hard to say.
The nearest natural phenomena that works like this evoke is the gradual change from light to dark at sunrise and sunset. But that process is a linear one, whereas these just keep going apparently without end.
If there is a criticism to be made of this show, it is in the arrangement of the ground floor gallery, where the viewing bays have a busy atrium through the entrance doors behind them. This disrupts the opportunity for contemplation on offer. A single work upstairs is more sealed off and has somewhere to sit. It is here, in the darkened room, that you can allow the full richness of these works to unfold.