See yourself seeing

Following Arakawa and Gins’s development of an individual’s perception of architectural surrounds, and developing a heuristic for perception of environments, numerous artists have been working with the development of perception of one’s senses, meaning that they give a person an experience of how s/he perceives the world through the senses.  An early example of this, preceding the work of Arakawa and Gins, is the work of James Turrell.  Noteworthy today as he is soon to complete his most ambitious work, Roden Crater.

Roden Crater is an extinct volcano that Turrell is transforming into an observatory.  Begun in 1979, it is still under construction, but many parts have been completed already.

In the late ’60s, Turrell studied the human perception of light, as well as sensory deprivation, in collaboration with Robert Irwin and Dr. Edward Schultz as a project organized by the LACMA Art and Technology program.  In an anechoic chamber at an aerospace company, they tested people’s perception of low levels of light.  The eventual results of this research, for Turrell, was the development of projects that offered a way for people to see themselves seeing.  He made  rooms in which a visitor would stare at a field of colour, usually a wall with curved edges or a half-dome, with consistent lighting and surface texture, so that no matter where the visitor would look, the light would be exactly the same, creating a Ganzfeld (

I saw one of these pieces last September at the Venice Bienniale.  The room was very large, sort of like a wide tunnel, and at the end the floor dropped off, and beyond this was the color-field.  The organizers of the space gave visitors only 3 minutes of time in the room, 3 people at a time, which was definitely too short for getting a full effect from the space.  Staring into this color field, at some point I completely lost any point of focus, and lost control over my eyes, and I was hoping that this would continue to the point of having a full Ganzfeld-effect, meaning that I would see only black, or temporarily go blind.

James Turrell, 'Ganzfeld'

The intention, as I understand it from what Turrell was written, is that a person does not pay conscious attention to the sense of sight, as those who have normal vision take for granted this sense that is so necessary for most of our daily tasks.  And creating sense-failure creates an immediate awareness of this mechanism of perception.  Turrell wished to give an experience of one’s visual mechanism of perception, in essence, to let you see yourself seeing.  What this has led to in the creation of new works of art are different installations, based on simple or complex technology, that allow for an experience of how we perceive our surrounding environment, and re-think our relation to this environment and how it is mediated through our mechanisms of perception.