James Turrell: Using Space to Resist Consumerism

So many of the technological advances produced by a consumer society involve an attempt to eliminate space for the purpose of commodifying time: telegraph, television, telephone, automobile, airplane, photography, internet. How we “spend” our time is now more a result of consumer-type choice because less of it involves the simple necessity of traversing space.

I do not know how to “solve” the problem of consumerism. Any claim that we can somehow escape it seems naïve. But every redemptive response that I can think of keeps coming back to the idea of space. If consumer society involves the attempted elimination of space, of distance, then perhaps space is a kind of threat, a resistance to a totalizing consumerism that can be leveraged against it. Where it persists, space is a kind of other that requires reckoning. We have attempted to colonize it, to eliminate it, to confine it using noise and motion just like we have done with all the other others we have created. We do so because space thwarts the immediate gratification of our desires. If consumerism is the attempt to make the whole world malleable in response to our desires, then space holds the potential for resisting desire. So, perhaps one way to resist consumerism is the act of opening space.

I think this is one of the ways in which art is most meaningful today. Several current artists are intuiting something like this and are working with a kind of spacious minimalism. One of the most prominent is James Turrell. One of his pieces – Acton – is installed in the Indianapolis Museum of Art. I did not even know that it was art at first. I thought it was a room under construction until a friend pointed it out to me. The artwork is literally a space, and it is a space on a couple of different levels. For the piece to work, it requires a full room because the lighting has to be right. Once in the room, you have the impression that you are looking at a black sheet hanging on the wall. It seems like a black sheet up until the very moment that you are close enough to touch it. But then, when you’re right up close to it, you know it’s not a sheet. It still looks like a sheet but you somehow know that it’s presence is not the presence of a sheet. So you reach out to touch it and realize that what looks like a flat rectangle on the wall is in fact a gaping hole. The IMA describes the piece like this:


In these works, Turrell defines two distinct areas of a room: the “viewing space,” where the audience stands to view the work, and the “sensing space,” which is filled with diffused light. A thin partition with a large opening in its center separates the two spaces. Turrell creates an optical illusion in which the viewer initially perceives the opening as a flat, monochromatic surface. Prolonged viewing yields a surprising shift in perception, as the viewer may see and even reach into the sensing space.

That’s it. It’s that simple – simply, literally, a space in a wall. By all accounts it should not be very interesting. And yet it is fascinating. There are benches in the room that invite you to sit with the space and many visitors do so. I’ve even been there when the benches were full and so people sat on the floor instead. Just think about that. You are in a whole museum full of marvelous, breathtaking images and yet scores of people are choosing to sit in front of a big empty hole instead.

My friend says that she sits there just because she likes to watch people’s reactions – their shock and confusion and joy is delightful – but I think it’s more than that, at least for me. We are so constantly inundated with images; we constantly do the difficult work of navigating these images – consuming them, making judgements and choices about them – that I think we might be tired. There is something soothing about clearing them all to the periphery, and just making a space. This hole in the wall is so unlike anywhere else in the world. We don’t see chasms in walls that are so absolutely black. When I peered into the space, I felt like myself, just my most naked self. And it wasn’t an experience of terror, which is typically how I imagine such experiences must be. I felt free to pray in a way that is not usually the case; I was somehow free to open myself up to something beyond myself.

Whenever I take classes to the IMA, I always tell students to go into that room and to reach out and touch the black rectangle on the wall, just as my friend had to tell me. Often, they report that it is their first spiritual experience with art. In that moment, when their perception shifts from “sheet” or “rectangle” to “chasm,” they experience something that we don’t typically allow ourselves to experience in everyday life. They experience their own smallness, the fact that they do not see things as they are, that reality is so much bigger than they are able to comprehend, and, perhaps most astonishingly, they experience the fact that this realization is not threatening, as we so often suppose, but is a source of joy and gratitude and wonder.

Turrell has opened a space – literally, physically – and that actual, physical space also becomes a space in the psyche, a brief hiatus from the tyrannous question of consumerism: “what do you want?” In Acton, there is nothing to want because the space cannot give you anything. All you want is what is. You just want to be. If that’s not a resistance to consumerism, then I don’t know what is.


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