James Turrell’s Ganzfeld Experiment

Ganzfeld is this summer’s vocabulary word. German for “entire [visual] field,” it’s a concept central to the art of James Turrell, subject of tri-coastal exhibitions at LACMA, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the New York Guggenheim. For what it’s worth, a “paranormal thriller” titled The Ganzfeld Experiment is also due to hit movie theaters.

That may leave you wondering how Turrell’s numinous art can have any connection to a wannabe horror franchise. Well, you might start by perusing the William Castle waiver that LACMA is requiring visitors to sign, in order to experience Turrell’s “perceptual cell,” Light Reignfall. The affidavit, available in English and Spanish, stipulates that the visitor is 18 or over, has no heart problems, is covered by health insurance, agrees to pay for any necessary emergency treatment, and acknowledges “that the Work has been known to cause epileptic seizures and that my experiencing the Work may result in serious injury, including… partial or total disability, paralysis, death, and/or severe social and economic losses.”

The Levitra commercial legalese reflects an imperative to disclose any conceivable side effect to a litigious public. I predict your chances of surviving Light Reignfall are excellent. I’m also sure that somebody, somewhere, has dropped dead while viewing a Matisse.

The perceptual cell is a separate and premium timed ticket from the Turrell retrospective itself (both open May 26). The price is—no typo—$45 ($15 for LACMA members), inclusive of the main exhibition. Surcharge and waiver notwithstanding, Turrell’s perception pod is likely to be the hottest ticket in town.

Here’s why.

Forty-four years ago Turrell and Robert Irwin collaborated on a ganzfeld installation for LACMA’s “Art and Technology” initiative. They were assisted by Ed Wortz, a Garrett Corporation psychologist who did human-factors engineering for NASA missions. In August 1969 Turrell walked off the project, and the ganzfeld installation was never realized. Since then the Turrell-Irwin-Wortz collaboration has taken on mythic dimensions as the greatest light and space work that never was. Turrell’s recent series of perception cells are the closest approximation to it. (At top of post is a view of another perception cell, Bindu Shards, 2010.)

“Ganzfeld” describes the experience of snowblind arctic explorers or pilots navigating dense fog. When everything in the visual field is the same color and brightness, the visual system shuts down. White is black is nothing is everything. When this occurs for an extended period, the person is subject to phantasmagoric hallucinations: the “prisoner’s cinema” experienced in isolation cells or collapsed mines.

This phenomenon has been studied in psychology labs. Long before Google glasses there were Ganzfeld goggles, and in a way they’re the opposite. Early Ganzfeld goggles consisted of halved ping-pong balls placed over the eye. The idea is to subtract information from the visual field. Turrell studied ganzfeld experiments in his psychology classes at Pomona College, and aerospace scientists like Ed Wortz worried that astronauts, encapsulated for long periods, might hallucinate.

LACMA’s “Art and Technology” project paired artists with scientists at local technology firms. The cover of the exhibition catalog is a serial grid of 64 mug shots of artists, scientists, entrepreneurs, and moguls. All are male, and all but Fred Eversley are white. (Where’s Warhol? Andy manages to stand out too.) The whole catalog is now on the LACMA site. This two-part post is mainly an executive summary of the catalog’s account of Irwin-Turrell-Wortz.

Caltech physicist Richard Feynman escorted Turrell and Irwin on a tour of the Garrett Corporation. The artists met Wortz and immediately hit it off. The three agreed to collaborate on an experiential artwork to be shown at Expo 70, a world’s fair in Osaka, Japan, and a 1971 LACMA exhibition. At that time Irwin had a considerable reputation as a painter and had already produced his iconic disk paintings. The younger Turrell was far less known, but he had already had a solo show at the Pasadena Art Museum in 1967. That same year Pasadena did a show of Irwin and Doug Wheeler’s light and space works.

Irwin-Turrell-Wortz envisioned a “sensory chamber.” Visitors, perhaps blindfolded, would enter a pitch-dark, soundproofed room. This would permit various perceptual tricks in the name of art.

As part of the R&D, Turrell and Irwin had volunteers sit in darkness in a soundproof room at UCLA, for 4 to 10 minutes. Even in that short period, many reported dream-like perceptions: “rod-shaped blue things… faces from weird angles… mainly ‘Christ-like’ and blond-female’ types… water sounds, walking sounds, stomach gurgles, bone creakings.” (Above, a seated Irwin and standing Turrell at UCLA, from the Art and Technology catalog.)

Turrell described the intended Osaka-LACMA artwork as a 12 x 12 x 12 foot black room—the antithesis of the white cube—wherein the visitor would sink into to the comfortable chair of modern art. Psych!

“The chair the visitor is seated in,” Turrell wrote, “is constructed of moveable parts which will slowly flatten as it is hydraulically lifted up to the third, upper chamber so that the visitor will end up prone on the floor of the upper chamber. There will be no light or sound stimuli at first in the chamber… stimuli will increase gradually to the point which seems to be between hallucination and reality.”

Would LACMA have permitted a reality-undermining artwork? As recently as 1966 Los Angeles had been a nanny county whose supervisors nearly shut down an Ed Kienholz show for insinuating that teenagers have sex in cars. Turrell was more concerned about the art world’s reaction.

“A problem may arise with this project in the minds of the art community who may regard it as ‘non-art’—as theatrical, or more scientific than artistic…”

He countered,

“The works of previous artists have come from their own experiences or insights but haven’t given the experience itself. They had set themselves up as a sort of interpreter to the layman… Our interest is in a form where you realize that the media are just perception.”

(Below, Turrell, Irwin, and Wortz.)

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