Who cares if it’s called “Breathing Light?”
We have about an hour before dinner and I’ve never been here before. Mom decides to forgo the galleries and, instead, get an iced tea and chill in the shade. She’s been driving my brother and I around Los Angeles all day: Up to Runyon Canyon, down to the thrift stores on Melrose, praying we don’t ask her to pull up somewhere new and spend more money. All while I try to give accurate directions, quietly self-shaming for not having a license.
We let her rest and go get our paid-entry stickers, LACMA spreading like a campus before us; so markedly different compared to New York’s museums, each in their own single-occupancy building. I ask the desk rep what’s going on with the iPad next to his window. With knowing nonchalance, he tells me that that is where I can signup to view a special James Turrell installation. “Inclined?” Guess so, which means I’ll receive an automated text letting me know when and where we should appear 5 minutes prior to my ‘appointment.’
I’m probably as much of a Turrell fanboy as the next. The work that I’ve seen of his, the sky light at MoMA P.S.1 and that fantastic show at the Guggenheim, both nearly had me in tears. Before my brother and I leave to see what else is on display here, a man in a blue blazer is leading a largish group of people I recognized from the parking garage towards us. The desk rep perks up. It appears that blue blazer is a personal, museum-ordained guide to the group who are speaking in excited Portuguese with one another. Blue blazer hands out stickers to the Brazilians—the cars they arrived in, immaculate beach-cruiser style Jeeps, each had a miniature replica of Ordem e Progresso on it’s hood—that are a different color than ours. Must be for special access, extra discounts at the shop and cafe, and whatnot.
A vacation can recede into view surprisingly quickly, what mementos and memories we keep depending on your sense of sentimentality. But not exclusively so, as there are other ways to keep feeling the effects of the past. Categorically speaking, most of the artists I saw in L.A. were represented back in New York. It was another city with a room full of Serras. But that’s not really what makes a place like LACMA distinct. If anything it was the Turrell.
At least, that’s the way it feels back in New York, living thousands of miles and just as many inane experiences away; anxious about my memory of that day fading, I looked up the name of the Turrell installation a couple months later, Googling for facts in the dark hours of an October Sunday. But lo, there on Instagram is the geotag “James Turrell Retrospective: LACMA.” Clicking through, I saw plenty, so many, really, people my age posing in the installation, making “Hotline Bling” puns.
Yet, these images look muted and flat as if it were the front of a day-glo lunchbox that they got screen printed on Etsy. It was not what I remembered or what I claimed that it was for myself and clearly beyond the capabilities of a smartphone.
Think of an old, 19th Century photo-taking apparatus: The black drape covering the photographer, the tripod and the boxy, obnoxiously-sized camera that sits atop it and the tobacco-stained “color” of the images it produced. The ghost-like portrayals of what are basically different people’s ancestors. (To my knowledge, for what my extended family lacks in 19th Century photos, it makes up with archetypal street-wise tales of kids growing up in Harlem.) The door to the area which held the Turrell was a partially see-through, black scrim, and the padded, very silent black box that served as the ante room to the artwork resembled the chamber of one of those, well, what we would now call first-wave cameras.
Extended metaphors aside, my brother and I were going to be the last visitors to the Turrell that day, as told to by an intent, but strict docent. We looked about approximate in age and she reminded me of the women who populate New York City museums—composed, discerning looking, there, presumably, for what art imbues and not the spectacle of art itself. Necessarily of the smartphone carrying type (lol who isn’t?) but without the gratuitous geotags.
Finding oneself in a world-class museum proffers the opportunity to flex one’s knowledge, so, I immediately attempted small talk. She was bright: Her eyes, her hair, her step. Her impression was radiating and I wondered what effects the Turrell had on her; the feeling of mental and spiritual illumination so potent after an 8 minute or so tour, I was curious what extended exposure did.
She, the docent, keeps disappearing around a corner, ushering folks to and from the installation, moving like a hummingbird or the first cup of coffee of the day.
It’s finally our turn, my teenage brother and I, so, we remove our shoes, replace them with cloth booties provided to us by another docent who is decidedly more solemn and guarded than his co-worker. He’s so abrupt it’s as if they’re Janus-faced sides of the same being. He sternly tells us that no photography will be permitted in the Turrell to preserve its integrity, intellectual property, mechanics. “The artist’s wishes,” so we’re told. I imagine he’s part-time.
If Gene Wilder hadn’t passed away so recently, he would have been the person most likely to know what it felt like to visit “Breathing Light.” It’s white, curved walls, the light almost atomized or misting, it resembles that scene in the original Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory where Gene, the eternal child and trickster, dispassionately allows a particularly bratty kid to shrink himself in what amounts to a magical microwave. The Turrell approximated Wonka’s microwave and, walking delicately with padded feet, I wondered whether I was in a similar space of intense entrapment. But the amazing turn of vibrant colors—pinks, greens, blues, oranges, and a white absent other hues—kept me blissed out. Like the brat in Willy Wonka, I didn’t care if this was it, bound to be shrunk to an impossible size, “Breathing Light” had seized me.
But I notice my brother. He looks nervous. Maybe he’s still too young for the sense of bodilessness that’s happening, or perhaps, what is a transporting feeling to me is nauseating to him.
“What is it?”
“What do you think it is?”
“Yeah, something solid after the drop off — ”
“You think it’s a wall?” The gallery guard, an immaterial figure only a second before, starts to walk over to us from the far end of the installation. In his suit with its too-long sleeves, buzzcut and satellite phone of a walkie-talkie, he looks ridiculous; his booties, the same as ours, look like fuzzy slippers ordered from the back of an Uggs catalogue.
He angles his head towards the wall, which seems both close while curving away.
We move forward a couple. “It’s not a wall,” he says. It didn’t sound like a challenge but it felt like he was addressing us more pointedly than was usual.
I try to read the name tag on the lapel of his coat, it seems important that I catch his name, but he just as soon turns away and walks towards the light. He motions for us to come with and I can feel my eyes going wide as I move to follow. At the edge of the white structure there is what appears to be a drop off of indiscernible depth and beyond an impermeable fog of color.
“See?” The gallery guard points to two ends of the fog, otherwise meteorologically impossible, which is framed by the white structure. Looking, the eyes adjust to what are clearly corners of a wall, the drop off less than the height of a parapet. It probably wasn’t the artist’s wishes to have the experience of his art dispelled, but visiting hours were over and you have to figure what spending an extended amount of time in this room did to a normal-seeming guy like the gallery guard. This was just a job to him. And art history could be said to be the practice of staring at pieces for extended periods of time, seeing what matters and why it does.
The Brazilians are here.
They sit in a row, across the length of the bench. A couple of family’s worth, three generations, in fact. They remain in their coördinated sun hats, white linens, and khaki pleats while my brother and I remove our hospital-style booties and mumble-ask for one of the younger Brazilians to pass us our shoes. They look like they’d rather we weren’t here, as does the blue blazer and the docent — the cheerful one is again out of sight. I can feel her dour counterpart’s stare on me as I untie the Supergas I’ve been wearing all summer, treating them like slip-ons. I’m being deliberate here, drawing out the process, making time move slowly, aware as I am of how ethereal a space I was just seconds removed from. Back here, in reality, rich Brazilians be damned, life is already losing its special luster, the one that Catherine intimated, driving Jules’s car off that unfinished bridge in Jules and Jim.
The Brazilians are here. We thought the room was basically ours, but looks like they were its final audience today. When they’re gone from the space, what then? Does it shut off? There is, underneath what draws you into James Turrell’s work, a deceptive quality. Something about light that beckons us, occupying our senses, mirroring what our brain sees, creating an individualized reality.
And I can just as easily imagine the same cheerful docent returning to this black box in the morning, clicking start, pressing play, whatever.
Outside, the air’s warm and full, perfect for sitting in one of the nearby chairs in the plaza, or “BP Grand Entrance,” according to a pocket map I picked up in the parking garage. Being in the L.A. sun somehow feels like overexposure to the world, and I’m rewinding the colors and experience of what’d just happened and how it felt in video cassette playback. But I want to be back indoors; a panging feeling, perhaps indoctrinated, after years of taking after school courses. The case of the Catholic praying for Sunday, praying on Sunday, and praying for every Sunday thereafter.
Art speaks to you, it’s said, but you can’t speak to it. Or, you can get close if you walk into the room full of Richard Serras, his massive, steel serpentine sculptures and say words at them: Your speech is there but without vibration; they don’t bounce back. Instead they’re absorbed into the blanketing rust, and the rush of being in a maze is suddenly acute. It’s perfectly dulling, an antidote to the sense of nonmaterial, magic microwavedness in the Turrell. Nearby, groups of people are patient, waiting for their turn to walk underneath Michael Heizer’s Levitated Mass, a purposefully free-standing sculpture of a very angular boulder balanced atop a clean-cut underpass.
The physical intimidation of the Serras and the Heizer are more so affecting after approaching a sort of incorporeality in the Turrell. Probably, it’s just comical to have these weighty, permanent, crushing works in the same space as the extra-spatial Turrell. All of which is located atop still active—you can smell it—prehistoric tar pits; an entombing site and another kind of museum altogether.