James Turrell’s Thin Spaces

Sunday, July 28, 2013
Eagle Harbor Congregational Church, guest preacher Jennifer Merrill
Sermon: The Gospel According to James Turrell
Scripture: John 8:1-2 & Psalm 43:3

I so glad you’re all here. Not only because I love you, but also because I love the work of James Turrell, and this morning I get to share some of that passion with you. I have this opportunity because Dee’s out of town at our UCC conference family camp for the week, and she needed someone to fill the pulpit. Her summer sermon topic series, as you may know, is “The Gospel According to…” She’s looked at the Gospel According to the Beatles, The Gospel According to Steven Spielberg, The Gospel According to Pixar, to list a few. I like this series a lot because it’s really encouraged me to think about how, to use United Church of Christ terminology, God is still speaking in arenas outside of the church, which, indeed, I do think God is doing.

When I volunteered to take this Sunday to explore how God is still speaking through the art of James Turrell, I thought, “Easy peasy; James Turrell is a Quaker, so I’ll just produce a slide show of images from his art, we’ll play a little Yo Yo Ma cello music in the background, and we’ll have a sort of modified Quaker meeting experience.” Well, not so easy peasy. Even though this sermon is going to include a couple of video clips in which we see some of Turrell’s work and in which Turrell describes his work, still projected photos from his installations, especially in a relatively bright room, like this sanctuary this morning, just doesn’t come anywhere near to approximating an in-person experience. That said, do know that all of the images on the screen are stills of his work.

Also, in honor of full disclosure, you should know that I have a strictly lay persons interest in art history and criticism. I am no expert on James Turrell; some of you may well know more about him and his work than I do. And, I find talking about what I like or don’t like about visual art or artists very difficult; mostly my appreciation, or lack thereof, is a non-verbal experience.

All that said, let’s dig in a bit. Who is James Turrell? What kind of art does he do? And what’s the good news in what he’s doing?

James Turrell is a 70-year-old white guy, as you can tell from the photo on the screen. His artistic life has been, and is, devoted to an exploration of light and light’s effect on the viewer; light is his medium.

Turrell was born and raised in the Los Angeles area. His father, an aeronautical engineer, died when Turrell was 10. His mother, who trained as a medical doctor but never practiced, spent time in the Peace Corps for a time after her husband died. Both she and Turrell’s grandmother were Quakers. His grandmother’s instruction for how to behave at a Quaker meeting was, “Go inside and greet the light.” Turrell says he knew she was referring to the inner, invisible light, but even then he was fascinated by light’s physical presence. Turrell attended meetings through his teen years, stopped attending for a while, but has been attending again since he designed the Live Oaks Quaker Meeting House in Houston in 1995.

Turrell was an Eagle Scout, Pasadena’s 1960 “Boy of the Year,” and a high school honor student. In other words, Turrell’s intelligence and motivation surfaced early. He did not, however, graduate from high school with his class in 1960 because that year he volunteered for the draft as a conscientious objector, true to his Quaker heritage. His alternative service was a pilot for an air-transport agency working with the CIA. Sources say he flew small planes into Tibet to bring out Buddhist monks who had revolted against the Chinese government. Turrell has not, and will not, talk about this experience. He also will not talk about, or talks very little about, the year in spent in jail between 1966 and 1967. He served this time after being caught in an FBI sting operation counseling potential draftees on how to avoid combat service in Vietnam. Add “socially conscientious” to intelligent and motivated.

Turrell received a BA in Perceptual Psychology from Pomona College in 1965; he attended art graduate studies at UC Irving in 1965 and 66; and he received an MA in Art from Claremont Graduate School in 1973. I could go on and on about how many times he’s been married—several—how many kids he has—several—and how he was perceived by many as a sort of hot-headed hippy who did what he had to do, to get what he needed, to do what he wanted to do. But instead, let’s talk about what he wanted to do. Work artistically with light.

I could go on and on about that, too, but since we don’t have all day, I’ll have to abbreviate as best as I am able. Basically, as I see it, we can put Turrell’s work into four categories:

Category 1: Installations in museums or other inside spaces in which light is projected onto a wall or corner, or around a wall or corner, such that it’s difficult for the viewer to determine what’s figure and what’s ground. (He was sued once, by a woman who walked into a lighted wall which she did not perceive as solid.)

Category 2: Outside sculptures whose reflective properties may confuse us on what is solid and what is not.

Category 3: Skyscapes, which are mostly inside spaces in which the viewer looks up at the changing sky through an aperture. Again, though in some sense serene, these spaces can also be disorienting. The Henry Art Museum at the UW in Seattle has a Turrell Skyscape; I recommend it to you.

And, finally, Roden Crater, which is his life’s work. More on that in a minute.

First, though, let’s look at a video about Turrell’s current exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Listen to what he says about light.

video: James Turrell Makes the Guggenheim Glow

Though Turrell doesn’t describe how he manipulates the LED lights in the Guggenheim’s rotunda, he does give us a good idea of why he’s fascinated by, and loves to work with, light: As he says: “I’m interested in reminding us that we do have this other way of seeing.”

So, now let’s see a longer video about Turrell’s work at Roden Crater. Listen to what he says about perception.

video: James Turrell’s Roden Crater

That’s a well-done video, I think, describing Turrell’s work at Roden Crater. It sure makes me want to spend some time there. You too? I appreciate what Turrell says about large sacred sites: “I do like a place that has a powerful quality. What is that quality? I’m not sure, but Roden Crater has that.” I appreciate that Turrell spends little or no time trying to describe or characterize that powerful quality. I think he assumes, rightly so, that most, or even all, of us have been to places where we feel that quality, that beyond-words, that at-one-with-the-cosmos, if you will, quality.

Some people refer to these places as “thin places,” where the wall, or the membrane, between this world, and all that we experience and think we know, and the “other,” the “all-inclusive,” the “spiritual” world is very thin. So thin that we experience a shift in our perception and our perspective.
I imagine Roden Crater, and what James Turrell is doing with Roden Crater, is indeed a thin space. Actually, I think most, if not all, of Turrell’s work, whether he would say so or not, is about creating thin spaces–places, as he says, where “we have a full vision…with greater lucidity and greater resolution.”

That eye-opening–physically and spiritually–experience is not necessarily soothing. I think, it’s often a simultaneous experience of peace and unease. Dee has more than once used the phrase “creative tension” to describe what happens when we are called to hold two disparate perspectives at the same time, which we are certainly called to do, here and there, in the Bible.

Creative tension is at work, I think, in the John passage we heard earlier. I chose those verses not because I wanted to talk about adultery, but because I think the description of the Pharisees demanding that Jesus condemn the woman caught in the act, if you will, is a pretty good mirror of many of us, individually, and certainly of our culture in general. Are we not, all too often, quick to form an opinion, quick to judge, quick to righteously spout off our perspective?

Such a way of seeing and talking is all over our “news” outlets and all over our living rooms. Snowden. Zimmerman. Weiner. To say nothing of what’s juicy in the lives of our friends and family. Such delectable fodder for a cacophony of judging voices. We’re just like the Pharisees.

But what does Jesus do and say? He doesn’t condemn; he says, “I also don’t judge you guilty.” Nor does he absolve; in his next breath he says, “Go on your way. From now on, don’t sin.” The woman, and the Pharisees for that matter, and us, by extension, are both off the hook and accountable. That’s a thin line to walk; that’s a thin space to be in; that’s creative tension.

Now I’m not saying that Jesus never judged, nor am I say that we should never judge. Far from it. But I am saying that we can, and we do, go overboard in judging others, and in judging ourselves for that matter, This all-too-pervasive righteous rush to judgment of others, and the knowledge that others are of like mind towards us, results in dis-ease and anxiety, don’t you think?

Jesus would like to free us from that dis-ease and anxiety. After setting us in a place of creative tension, he says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” The light of life. A light wherein, like Jesus, our eyes are opened, and we see people and situations from more than one angle or perspective. A full-spectrum light that erases our black-and-white tendencies. An all-inclusive way of seeing.

Not many of us live primarily in such a light, of course, but I do think most of yearn for it. The psalmist says it well: “Oh send out your light and your truth; let them lead me; let them bring me to the hill of your dwelling.” We want, in Turrell’s language, to be free of “prejudiced perception”; we want “full vision.”

And the good news is: such vision is available. Biblical scholar Walter Brueggeman, in analyzing the progression of many Psalms, characterizes the journey to full vision as a passage from staid orientation, through sometimes disquieting dis-orientation, to a new re-orientation. In other words: We’re taking a hike, we’re reading a passage from scripture, we’re about to enter a James Turrell Skyscape, all with our usual mindset… And then, unexpectedly, something mysterious, something powerful happens: We stumble into a thin space… Jesus says something upside down…we can’t figure out what is going on with the light in this room…; we are disoriented. But, if we’re open to this disorientation, if we respond with wonder and trust instead of with fear (as in suing the artist), then we experience re-orientation, we realize a new, fuller way of seeing and being. So, thank you thin spaces, thank you Jesus, and thank you James Turrell. Amen.

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