I Survived Turrell’s Perception Cell

"Light Reignfall" at the Garage Center for Contemporary Culture, Moscow, in 2011. © James Turrell, Photo © Florian Holzherr

Despite $45 tickets and a waiver full of medico-legal scare talk, James Turrell’s perception cell, Light Reignfall, is booked through the end of July. The work is incorporated in LACMA’s Turrell retrospective, but it requires a separate timed ticket because only one person can experience it at a time, and this takes about 12 minutes. Perception cell tickets have been selling out around the globe. The photo above, of a 2011 showing in Moscow, is similar to what you’ll find in the Resnick Pavilion through April 2014. (More back story here and here.)

I had a ticket for opening day. Light Reignfall occupies a 10-foot sphere managed by white lab-coated attendants. They give you a waiver to sign saying you have no medical problems and acknowledge that the work can cause seizures, disability, paralysis, or death. An emergency contact with phone number is required. Then you’re asked whether you want the “soft” or “hard” experience. Hard means faster, more strobing. I chose hard, and as far as I can tell, everyone else did too. YOLO.

I was instructed to take off my shoes, empty my pockets, and put on headphones. The attendant gave me an emergency button—the safe word for terminating—to strap to my wrist. Then I reclined on a white bed. This is a YOLO experience you do horizontally, like an MRI or a stiff on CSI.

The bed slowly slides inside the sphere. Once inside, I was looking up at the sphere’s inner surface. It’s a completely featureless field of view with no sense of depth (a ganzfeld). In the first few moments I saw a cerulean-blue wash.

Then things got moving. The light’s color and brightness pumped stroboscopically. The headphone audio was a synthetic tone synched to the lighting throughout.

I began seeing things almost immediately. They were complex, crystalline, kaleidoscopic fields, sometimes Matisse-gorgeous and other times garish.

The freakiest thing about the experience is feeling that your eyes are shut when they’re open. The imagery is akin is to the “stars” or weird patterns you see when you shut your eyes tightly or a punched in the head. The term for that is phosphenes. There were several calm interludes where the field turned blood-red like the back of closed eyelids in sunshine. In a slasher movie, the squeamish can close their eyes. Not here. I actually did the experiment of closing my eyes a few times. A similar though different show was playing behind my eyelids. That’s Eyes Wide Shut and A Clockwork Orange. (It’s fitting that the Turrell show overlaps both Stanley Kubrick and Hans Richter at LACMA.)

Sex or drugs? The most quoted capsule review is“mental orgasm.” Well it wasn’t quite that for me. A less sexy parallel that came to mind was the scintillating crazy cats of Victorian illustrator-turned-madhouse-outsider-genius Louis Wain (right). Imagine a rapidly animated version of Wain’s most ornate (and nonfeline) abstractions, and you’d have the basic idea.

I was also reminded of literary descriptions of drug hallucinations, such as Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater. He described a quality of horror vacui according fairly well with my perceptions of Light Reignfall.

Some perception cell visitors have reported actual imagery. Not me—all my  visions were nonfigurative. They were highly cinematic nonetheless, with lots of Vertigo-style dolly shots zooming in and out.

Many writers, including myself, have assumed that the perceptual cells produce sensory deprivation hallucinations. Having experienced Light Reignfall, I don’t think that’s right. The imagery began almost instantly, so it can’t be “prisoner’s cinema.” It’s phosphenes of some kind, but I can’t say I understand how they are produced.

I was surprised when I felt the drawer opening. I told the attendant that it seemed more like two minutes than ten. “Many people feel that way,” she told me. Your least worry should be you’re going to be bored.

I can’t say whether my experience will jibe with anyone else’s—which is sort of the point. The most radical/philosophical thing about Light Reignfall is that it erases the distinction between the objective and the subjective.

Are you witnessing a super-Hans Richter movie projected on the dome, the same movie for all customers? I’m sure the answer is no, that the complex imagery is phosphenes generated in each viewer’s head. I believe, in other words, that an objective snapshot of the dome, at any given moment, would be a simple monochrome or gradient looking nothing like the experience.

It’s a truism of museum folk that the average visitor spends 15 seconds or less on an artwork. It’s a truism of postmodernism that originality is impossible and it’s all been done. “James Turrell: A Retrospective,” and especially Light Reignfall, is an eloquent counterexample to both claims.

The word “phosphene” was coined by B.H. Savigney, ship’s surgeon of the Medusa. Yes, that Medusa. Maybe it’s not so crazy to propose that Turrell’s perception cells are a Raft of the Medusa for our age of Google Glass subjectivity.

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