James Turrell, "Bindu Shards," shown at Gagosian Gallery, London, 2010
(SECOND OF A TWO-PART POST. PART ONE IS HERE.)
The ganzfeld artwork that James Turrell, Robert Irwin, and Ed Wortz conceived for LACMA and Expo 70 was never realized. The collaboration’s break-up is nonetheless described at great length in the catalog to Art and Technology. There LACMA’s Jane Livingston wrote,
“…Irwin and Turrell became less inclined—through the Spring and into the Summer of 1969—to carry out their original plan for designing an environment combining an anechoic chamber with a Ganz field for the Museum… Then, in August, Jim Turrell suddenly abdicated from the project. He terminated his relationship with Irwin, though he has continued to the present time to see Wortz. Irwin said later that had Turrell maintained his participation in the project, they might eventually have consummated an environmental piece, but that he didn’t feel inclined to pursue it on his own, or with Dr. Wortz.”
The word “abdicated,” used several times, might describe the action of a pope—or Bartleby. Livingston then gave the three principals open mike to go all Rashomon on each other. I encourage you to read the catalog’s complete account, not that it will settle anything.
Wortz said the collaboration became “non-goal-oriented” and spoke of a “problem” between Irwin and Turrell.
“Bob approached information differently than Jim or myself. Jim and I are primarily information sops. Bob withholds information. He keeps the information at a distance, which is interesting, because he would arrive at the same observations and the same set of conclusions by holding off information. It was a very effective technique. Jim and I would sop it all up…
Irwin and Turrell with a ganzfeld hemisphere, c. 1969
Here’s Irwin’s side of the story.
“All this kind of information has very strange social connotations. You find yourself not telling everyone about it, because a lot of people look at you like you’ve dropped your cookies It’s not a verbal experience… Wortz and I operate out of common experience. We would do various experiments together, and then begin to talk about them afterward. But when you spend this playing with non-verbal forms, it gets hard to talk. You don’t have a desire to talk about it. It doesn’t work, and it doesn’t feel right.”
Turrell’s comments “were quite different from those of Wortz and Irwin, ” wrote Livingston. “Often his statements seem immensely distanced from the issues at hand, and reveal as much about the evolution of his thinking over the last year as about his role or approach during the time of the collaboration.”
A few quotes from Turrell:
“We’re standing next to a swimming pool a little bit frightened about jumping in. But everyone’s going to get pushed in, or jump in finally. It doesn’t make any difference which…
“The scientist has reserved the universe of the unknown as his place. What the artist has to reveal seems to be of a different order—but it probably isn’t, in the end.
“If either art or technology become a religion, maybe the stuff will start getting more exciting. There’s got to be an Art and Technology Christ…”
A plausible meta-conclusion is that the three realized the logistical impracticality of their ganzfeld piece. It would have permited only one viewer at a time, for an enforced session of around 30 minutes. That’s about two visitors an hour, assuming the morphing chair/elevator didn’t go on the fritz and ignoring any liability issues.
In the 1970s the term “ganzfeld” became associated with extra-sensory perception. Some experiments purported to show that subjects wearing ganzfeld googles had clairvoyant powers. The CIA, alarmed by reports that the Soviet Union was studying psychic espionage and warfare, spent $20 million on the “Stargate Project,” encompassing studies of ganzfeld telepathy at the Stanford Research Institute.
To make a long post shorter, the SRI experiments have been convincingly and abundantly debunked. The connection between ganzfeld environments and telepathy or psychedelia has entranced a number of filmmakers however. Ken Russell’s Altered States (1980), from a novel and screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky, is a worthy specimen of post-Kubrick sci-fi. The upcoming film The Ganzeld Experiment sounds more derivative. Here is IMDb’s précis:
“In a world where past meets present and the present gets lost in time, reality is blurred for 5 College psychology students who are pushing all boundaries during an ESP experiment over a lost weekend… Memories, dreams, past, future… Can they forget what they cannot remember??? – For those 5 students a new kind of terror awaits.… Is anything real???”
The Stanford Research Institute bounced back from its ganzfeld boondoggle. After losing the CIA contract, SRI developed software to converse with human voices and licensed it to Apple, which incorporates it in iPhones and iPads—as “Siri.”
Meanwhile Ed Wortz left the corporate world to become a therapist specializing in artists and using techniques of Buddhist meditation. He died in 2004.
Turrell has lately adopted the word ganzfeld for a series of light installations. They are spacious rooms, suited to several visitors at once. The light, modulated by digital and LED technology, cycles seamlessly. A ganzfeld piece titled Breathing Light will be featured in LACMA’s main Turrell show (and has been purchased for the collection by Kayne Griffin Corcoran and the Kayne Foundation). Below is a view of another ganzfeld, Dhatu.
A distinct group of recent works, the perception cells, are closely related to the unrealized Art and Technology piece. In Light Reignfall, to be shown at LACMA, a single viewer lies down on a sliding gurney within a spherical chamber for a theoretically perfect ganzfeld-gestalt/zeitgeist. The experience lasts 12 minutes, and timed tickets allow for three visitors per hour.
That’s scarcely more “practical” than the original idea. The difference is that Turrell is now an artworld rock star and audiences are willing to stand in line, sign waivers, and pay steep fees to experience one of his most quintessential works. Another perception cell, Bindu Shards (top of post), was a sold-out hit when shown at the London Gagosian Gallery in 2010. Here is The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones on Bindu Shards:
“I am placed on a sliding medical bed, counselled some more and locked in the sphere. And it begins. A relaxed ambient expanse of blue is shattered by high-speed flashing that rapidly becomes an ever-changing pattern of flowers, crystals, galaxies, quasars and nebulae.
“Then I see a cityscape of vertiginous skyscrapers, with no earth below. All these forms and volumes that pulse and metamorphosise are defined by colours that change convulsively – the most intensely saturated greens and reds you can imagine, colours that seem solid, then burst into microscopic patterns of oranges, blacks, gold and misty white; all these colours bubble and whir at breakneck speed, as if you were in a particle accelerator.
“But the most important part of the experience is that you do not know what is inside and outside your head. I saw a space, or rather an ever-changing succession of spaces, but these were independent of any actual material reality – they existed only in my head.…
“One critic has already claimed he had a mental orgasm in the chamber. It would be nice to scoff but I feel that downplays the power of this mind-expanding work of art. Sessions are fully booked, which means we critics are just fuelling the already large numbers of disappointed visitors. The other works in the exhibition, free for all, are almost equally revelatory. Turrell is the mad scientist of postminimalism, and he’s on a roll.”
There you have it, folks—$45 for the magical mental orgasm tour. Tickets go on sale May 8.
Stills from Turrell's "Sustaining Light," a modulated light piece shown at Gagosian Gallery, London, 2010