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‘Light’: Praemium Imperiale Laureate James Turrell on Art and the Spectrum of Human Perception

The 2021 Sculpture Laureate modestly points out that the concept driving his work – this “idea of going inside to greet the light ー is going inside to greet the light that is within everyone.”

JAPAN Forward

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The arts enrich our lives and express where we are as humanity at any given moment, help us understand where we’ve been, and give us hints at where we might be going. 

In this first year of the resumption of the Praemium Imperiale awards after the COVID-19 pandemic enveloped the globe, the Japan Arts Association has selected laureates in the fields of art, sculpture, architecture and music, whose individual achievements, and impact on the arts internationally, have played a role in enriching the global community.

This year’s laureate in sculpture is artist James Turrell (U.S.), recognized by the Japan Arts Association as an artist whose “works reveal “even in a dream with our eyes closed, we see light.”

In an interview upon being named the 2021 Praemium Imperiale laureate in the field of sculpture, the artist reflected on his fascination with perceptions and with light, and the experience of his art. Excerpts follow.

Sculpture and artist James Turrell (Praemium Imperiale Award interview)

Greeting the light within:

My family was Quaker and “she” was the strongest Quaker, and they do meditation. So going inside to greet the light is getting the light on the inside, with eyes closed. 

In the dream, we have fully formed vision, sometimes vision with greater sense of color, and even greater acuity than with the eyes open in the day. 

So this idea ー of going inside to greet the light ー is going inside to greet the light that is within everyone.

Exploring the spiritual and physical realm of light:

I was always interested in light, because I was very interested in the light that unites the inside world, like the dreams at night. You know, where does the light come from in your dreams? 

But it is light that unites this spiritual realm, and the physical realm. So I wanted to use light. 

Sculpture and artist James Turrell (Praemium Imperiale Award interview)

The psychology of ‘perception’:

The problem is, when you go and take art courses, if you mix blue paint and yellow paint, you get green. But if you mix blue light and yellow light, you get white. You have to learn the spectrum. 

So this is why I took the psychology of perception. Because I realized if I were going to use light as a material to activate or work the medium of perception, I would have to know more about how we perceive and how we see.

Light as a ‘thing’:

First of all, I want to say that light is a thing. People say, yes, it’s a thing, but it has, it exhibits wave behavior. But the fact is that a photon has mass. So that is a thing. And I like to have it portrayed, so we see it that way. 

But it’s a lot like how we see light in the dream. Often light radiates off people – when you walk into a space and you feel the light in the space. I just wanted to have ー in front of my physical eyes ー light. Like I could see in the dream. 

And so that was the idea of making this idea of thingness of light. I mean, generally, we use light to reveal about other things. We light illuminate paintings.We will make sculpture. 

But I was not so much interested in what light was revealing, as in the fact that light was a revelation itself.

Praemium Imperiale Sculpture Laureate James Turrell, Photo: Yutaka Sato

Light and perception:

I feel that I’m using the material light, which I explain again is this material to work ー or affect ー the medium of perception. So perception is my medium. And I’m using light to affect it.

For me, it has to do with this idea of journey. And putting together the experience, which has to do with perception. And so, [you have the] same object of perception, very different experience. 

Light in geologic time:

So I’m wanting to preserve the experience. That’s why I’m doing this piece out here in the American desert, in a volcano. 

I like this quality of being in the stage set of geologic time. Looking at the Painted Desert, where you see millions of years of erosion. You see the eruption of the volcano, and you feel this geologic time, to then experience celestial events in light. 

So I play the music of the spheres in light over time.

Sculpture and artist James Turrell (Praemium Imperiale Award interview)

Curmudgeons and optimists:

You know, in the long term, I’m very optimistic. And I want to tell you, you can’t be an artist unless you’re an optimist. 

You might be a curmudgeon, and you know, a cranky exterior is always needed. And somehow males seem to need to take that on. But you’ve got to be an optimist to be in art.

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Author: JAPAN Forward