Into the Abyss: James Turrell’s ‘Iltar’ at the Guggenheim

Into the Abyss: James Turrell’s ‘Iltar’ at the Guggenheim

WARNING: Do not trust your eyes.

The standard rules of visual perception do not apply at James Turrell’s Iltar, an otherworldly component of the minimalist master’s eponymous exhibit that has taken over the winding walls of the Guggenheim. Sure, there has been a lot of buzz about Aten Reign, his colorful light installation that transformed Frank Lloyd Wright’s fabled atrium into an elite, space-age rainbow room, but a wholly different, and seemingly underrated, kind of transcendent experience awaits visitors a few flights up.

The experience: You walk through a dark portal and into a dimly-lit room. The walls around you are bare, save for a pair of ambient lights ahead. An eerie atmosphere, for sure—but from here on things just keep getting stranger. A rectangular gray canvas is seen hung on the wall before you. At the prompt of a museum attendant, you stare. “What’s there to see?,” is your initial thought, but, knowing Turrell is responsible, you dutifully gaze on. Still nothing? GAZE, I say! Slowly, just ever-so-faintly at first, the gray panel begins to change. Perhaps “morph at a sloth’s pace” may be a better way to put it. It’s not a canvas any longer—more like, a cloud? But, how? Some sort of window into a nebulous mist, sent here from another world? No, it’s the entrance into another room, right? A smokey room, it must be. Is there a fog machine in there? Can I step in? If I do, where will I end up? You continue to gaze, focusing all your optical concentration on the strange display. Your periferal vision becomes hazy, small swirls of negative color flash. What is this? Where did it come from? How can this be?

Just like the vague, nebulous viewing experience, the exhibit is fleeting. Step into the abyss before Sept. 25, or this cloud will dissipate.Welcome to Iltar. It’s Turrell’s grand attempt at the arousing the “Ganzfeld Effect,” an anomaly of perception induced by exposure to a uniform field of color—in this case, dim gray light. According to legend—or is it science?—it can instigate hallucinatory effects or even altered states of consciousness. Let me be clear: The experience was no mushroom trip (let’s leave that to the Jack Kerouacs of the world), but it is a departure from normality. Turrell first conceived of the concept in 1976, making it part of a series with a name that would make any sci-fi author wish he thought of it first: “Space Division Constructions.”

>>James TurrellIltar, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1071 Fifth Ave., 212.423.3500

PHOTOS: James Turrell, Florian Holzherr, © James Turrell; James Turrell, Iltar, 1976, Tungsten light, dimensions variable, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Panza Collection, Gift 91.4077 © James Turrell, Installation view: James Turrell: Iltar, University of Arizona Museum of Art, Tucson, September 5–October 12, 1980, Photo: Courtesy James Turrell