This morning I had what felt like a near-death experience. I also underwent something that possibly resembled a re-birthing. No I was not on LSD, nor have I joined a hippy-dippy cult. I was looking at or, rather, was totally immersed in the art of James Turrell. After walking up the steps to a spherical chamber in the Gagosian Gallery in Kings Cross, a young woman in a white coat invited me to I lie on a bed and put on a set of earphones. I was then trundled inside the machine like a patient about to have an MRT scan. As the door closed l felt like a mummy in sarcophagus. I tensed, my breathing became quick and shallow, and I experienced a wave of panic. Clasping the escape button close to my chest I had been told that on no account must I sit up. Although I had signed a disclaimer that I didn’t have epilepsy, the white coated young woman suggested that, as I suffer from migraines, I should opt for the soft, rather than the hard version, which had less intense flashing lights. As ambient sound played through the head phones I tried to relax despite the sense of claustrophobia. [Bindu Shards, James Turrell, courtesy of Gagosian Gallery.]
Then, opening my eyes I was surrounded by a heavenly blue light. No, not surrounded, enveloped; for I had no sense of space or scale. There was no horizon. The blue seemed infinite. As I lay there I felt as though I was floating – in space, in water, even in amniotic fluid. Then the lights changed, pulsing from a central nebula. I couldn’t watch as I couldn’t bear the intensity of the flashing – what, I wondered would the hard version have been like? – and had to shut my eyes, though I could still see the lights through my closed lids. I half opened my eyes and was bathed in a deep red. It was like being in the womb. Then things went dark and the bright lights pulsed again. Sometimes it felt as if I was hurtling through space or deep under the sea. Was this what it had felt like to be born? I knew that I was in the capsule for fifteen minutes so tried to estimate how much time had passed in order not to panic. Towards the end the light turned blue again, then slowly faded and darkened leaving me feeling strangely calm. So this, I thought, is what death will feel like.
Bindu Shards 2010, was developed from the Ganzfeld sphere entitled Gasworks built in 1993 at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds. The phenomenon experienced will be familiar to any mountaineer who has ever been caught in a snowstorm whiteout unable to distinguish whether what they are seeing is real or in the mind. This, of course, poses huge questions about the nature of perception and, even, religious or spiritual experience. What does it mean to see something or to ‘know’ that you have seen something? Is this what a vision is?
Next I took off my shoes and queued for Dhātu 2010. Climbing the steps I entered a room where the curved walls and hazy atmosphere made it impossible to estimate the dimensions of the space. Ahead was a screen size aperture of blue light. It felt as if I was standing at the gateway to heaven and might fall into the rectangle of light in front of me and disappear into another dimension. As the colour changed, so did my emotions. Born in California in 1943, James Turrell has been working with light and optical phenomena since the 1960s. With a degree in experimental psychology and a masters in art, he explores the extremes of human perception. Both these works at Gagosian feed back into his body of work Roden Crater, one of the most ambitious landworks of contemporary art and an ongoing project. In the late 1970s Turrell purchased a three mile chunk of desert near the Grand Canyon and, through a feat of engineering wizardry worthy of the ancient Egyptians, aligned the movement of the sun and the moon, allowing viewers to experience solar and celestial phenomena. He has claimed that: “Two thousand years from now it will be perfectly aligned and 4,000 years from now it will be as accurate as it is today but from the other side”. For everything, he says, is moving: the earth from the North Star, even the terrestrial plate on which the volcano sits. [Dhatu, James Turrell, courtesy of Gagosian Gallery.]
Turrell’s investigations of the sensations of space and perception, what he calls ‘the architecture of thought’, fit into a new kind of art by the likes of Anish Kapoor and Olafur Eliasson that meld science, art and theatre in order to pose questions about the nature of existence and ask who we are and where we fit in this material universe.
Down at White Cube in Mason’s Yard, the artist Christian Marclay, who was born in California but now lives in London, has also been involved in a major new project The Clock, which investigates how we experience and understand time. Constructed from myriads of cinematic clips that feature clocks, someone looking at a watch or simply a clue such as a meal to indicate a particular time of day, Marclay has ingeniously edited thousands of filmic fragments so that they flow in real time. The experience of sitting in the gallery, which has been turned into a cinema, is both destabilizing and, surprisingly, absorbing. Scenes change so that disrupted narratives flow off in different directions.
And yet, somehow, there seems to be a real narrative tension to the piece. Each snippet pulls us in to its individual drama, which we glimpse, only in part, rather like a view out of the window of a moving train. Nazis from a 1950’s war film are juxtaposed with modern American movies, a snippet of French film or a sequence from James Bond, black-and-white comedies are spliced with continental art-house films, sci-fi and horror movies. As characters check their watches and clocks tick anxiety mounts and waiting becomes the overarching theme, underlain with frustration, anxiety, trepidation and disappointment. Time passes and there is nothing we can do about it. Relentless and unforgiving, it is indifferent to the lives that unfold within it. [The Clock, Christian Marclay, courtesy of White Cube.]
Not only does The Clock create a history of film but it functions as an actual timepiece. It is as if all these collaged, multifarious celluloid lives reflect the world as it actually is: a palimpsest of stories and parallel existences that happen simultaneously, weaving in and out of each other, to create the onward flow of history. We are also reminded that time is a human construct. There is, of course, ‘measurable’ time marked by clocks, but time can collapse or elongate in those moments when we receive bad news, have to make a snap decision or are forced to wait anxiously for some crucial information that might change our lives. Time is not just a continuous chain of events or a temporal sequence. It has the potential to shrink and to expand, particularly in dreams where whole lives can flash before us in a matter of seconds.
The film also mirrors how we remember events – as collages, outside time. Facts are abridged and re-written as we replay past scenarios in our heads and piece together lost fragments. Marclay’s clock is synchronised to the time zone in which it is being exhibited so that as we sit through the ‘performance’ we are made highly conscious of the real time: of how much we have left before our next meeting or until lunch. To ease the filmic flow he uses a variety of devices to move from one scene to another, so that a sense of cinematic reality is built up. If a character opens a door the next scene may begin with someone entering a room. Phone calls, rain, the sound of a ticking clock all link scenes, so that although we know they come from different movies the viewer makes connections between events. Sound, according to Marclay is the glue that sticks the images together, that supplies the linking thread.
We often talk of ‘becoming lost in time’ and The Clock allows for that sense of suspension whilst also making us acutely aware of actual time passing. Watching it is rather like standing still in the centre of a busy station concourse as events unfold around us without us ever knowing their conclusion. As T. S. Eliot wrote in Burnt Norton:
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
The [Clock, Christian Marclay, courtesy of White Cube .]
Sue Hubbard is a freelance writer, award winning-poet and art critic. Her latest publications include: The Idea of Islands poems (Occasional Press) and Adventures in Art: selected writing 1990-2010 (Other Criteria.)