I have an interest in the invisible light, the light perceptible only in the mind...I want to address the light that we see in dreams...
JULIA BROWN: Jim, your work is known for the relations it poses among light, space, and the viewer. Could you explain how much of your work is derived from a particular space, and how much is it independent of a particular place?
JIM TURRELL: I work in both ways. I like to find a site that has unique opportunities for light or the perception of space. If the site is neutral and doesn't have any unique qualities or many possibilities, then I construct an independent piece that could be transferred elsewhere, a more hypothetical piece than one which comes from responding to a specific site. Spaces in general are not neutral to begin with, and some have more complexities than others. The more they have, the less possible it is to make a neutral beginning. In that case, I respond to the site and make a piece that is unique to it. Generally, I would say that the spaces in museums are not particularly neutral, and they are more adaptable, basically, to painting. Some are reasonably adaptable for sculpture, but that's less common. And it is even less common that they are adaptable to environmental works. By and large, architects have created museums that support a limited view of art. However, when you take a warehouse that has been used for many functions and empty it of its intended use, you find a space that has more possibilities. For an art that's not restricted to objects that go up an elevator into an eastside apartment, spaces like this are definitely more interesting. I have more ambition for art than to have it limited to these things.
JB: When you say a site has a unique character, you're nevertheless making your own structure within it or within that architecture. You don't seem to actually work with the particular characteristics or details of the existing architecture
JT: For the most part, I work within a given architecture that is generally rectilinear. In making a piece, I like the form and construct to have a neutral quality. This requires a rectilinear format. If a painter makes a canvas that is elliptical, it is in fact a shaped canvas and not neutral. So if what I want to make pays attention to the specifics of the given architectural form, the form of the construction may become more important than the space within. But if I want to get away from the particulars of the architecture, with its detail and attention to form, so as to make an architecture of space, then I have to rid the space of those details and features that call attention to form.
JB: What do you mean by an architecture of space?
JT: I'm interested in the weights, pressures, and feeling, of the light inhabiting, space itself and in seeing this atmosphere rather than the walls.
JB: Are you talking about volume?
JT: Atmosphere is volume, but it is within volume. Seeing volume as a whole is one thing, but there are densities and structuring within a space that have to do with a penetration of vision and a way of seeing into it.
JT: You can inhabit a space with consciousness without physically entering it, as in a dream. You can be in it physically and see it in that manner also. But whether you're in a space and looking at it or outside and looking into it, it still has qualities of atmosphere, density, and grain so that your vision will penetrate differently in some areas than others. Some areas will be more transparent or more opaque, and other areas will be very free to the penetration of vision.
JB: Is that because of the nature of what you have constructed, or is it because of the way in which you control the light?
JT: It can be either or both. How the light enters can be controlled, and your sense of the confines produced by the structure can be altered by the light. It is possible to see spaces within spaces, not delineated by form but by visual penetration. An example would be the kind of space that is generated by blushes of light near you, such as at a lectern or on a stage where you can't see the audience but the audience can sce you quite clearly. You inihabit a different space than the audience, though you're in the same structure. Your penetration of vision is markedly different than theirs. You literally cannot see them, although there is no form between you and them. The penetration of vision has been completely Iimited by the manner in which the light around you is different than that on the people who are looking at you. So, in making a piece, the first objective is not to look at the possibilities of architectural form and the possibilities of space, but to wOrk with them so as to express a particular realm or atmosphere. That's usually done by working with the manner in which the space yields to vision, the way you can plumb the space with seeing.
JB: You want to create an atmosphere?
JT: Yes, one that can be consciously plumbed with seeing, like the wordless thought that comes from looking into fire.
JB: At times you work with natural light using light from a window or a skylight; at other times you bring in electric light or so-called artificial light. Can you talk about the difference and how those decisions get made in individual works?
JT: Whether or not I want to work with the light that's given depends upon its possibilities of empowering a space. It must have some grace. If not, then I'll use any other ligilt available to me. But it doesn't really matter because either way the light is used to make a realm that's of the mind. I don't have a preference between existing or artificial light. There isn't any real difference. In either case you're burning a material and that material releases its charactcristic light. Whether you burn hydrogen, a piece of wood, or tungsten wire, the light reveals what that material is; it is characteristic of that material at that temperature. So it doesn't really matter to me whether you have to light electric fires or use the one in the sun or a reflection of it off the moon. It is all natural light.
JB: What sort of importance do you give to the structure?
JT: the physical structure is used to accept and contain light, and to define a situation. But the light can determine the space and it can be experienced more than the structure if the surface does not call attention to itself. Extreme attention must be paid to making perfect surfaces so you don't notice them.
JB: But doesn't the structure create the way in which you have that experience?
JT: If you see some of the pieces when they're not lit they're just empty. It isn't the structure that's making the presence. It creates and defines context.
JB: Then the structure determines how you approach the work and stand in relation to it?
JT: Yes, but the structure is not the predominant maker of the work. How the light enters the space and how the structure is formed to allow that, creates the work. The work is about your seeing. It is responsive to the viewer. As you move within the space or as you decide to see it, one way or another, its reality can change. The approach to it is very important. It's possible for you to make the reality of your expcrience of the piece become the determinant of its existence.
JB: When you say approach, do you mean the literal distance or are you also describing the nature of an entrance?
JT: Both. One is how you first see it and the other is how far away it is and how our approach to it can be a type of preloading. For instance you can come from an area that's rather brightly lit into an area that's dim or you can come from an area with a predominant color so that as you step into another space you're loaded with the afterimage of that first color. For a moment or so you actually mix the afterimage of the previous space with the "real" color of the space you're in.
JB: That is a very complicated effect. Are you talking about memory or actual visual phenomena?
JT: The senses have a short term memory. They don't clear immediately. We generally ignore the effects of afterimage, etc. However, it is possible to make situations where this is virtually impossible.
JB: Are there references tor the use of a color or density of light or the particular experience you're creating? Is it something that you've seen elsewhere or experienced before?
JT: A lucid dream or a flight through deep clear blue skies of winter in northern Arizona - experiences like these I use as source.
JB: You've been a pilot yourself for many years now. How much does your experience of flying come into your work?
JT: Very much. I use the plane to plumb those spaces within the sky. You're actualy in those spaces. Some of them are created by cloud conditions or weather others by virtue of the way light works in the sky.
JB: How do you see that? I mean, is it through a difference in color?
JT: Through the penetration of vision. Moving from twilight into night is a time when visual changes occur rapidly. Experiences of weather are amazing. If you're going through a fog, using Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) into the clear, you take off and enter the clouds, and just before you break out on top, there's a moment in which the clouds take on the color of the sky. Or comind down to land at night, for instance, doing an IFR approach, there are really interesting things that happen just as you are about to make out the ground below. The experience of flying in snow is another thing; it's a dangerous situation but still very beautiful. Early on I was struck by Antoine de Saint Exupery's description of flight spaces in his books Wind, Sand and Stars and Night Flight. He described spaces in the skies, spaces within space, not necessarily delineated by cloud formations or storms or things like that but by light qualities, by seeing, and by the nature of the air in certain areas. For me, flying really dealt with these spaces delineated by air conditions, by visual penetration, by skyconditions; some were visual, some were only felt. These are the kinds of spaces I wanted to work with - very large amounts of space, dealing with as few physical materials as I could.
My involvement with flying was very important when I began searching for a particular site for the piece that has become the Roden Crater project. In 1974 and 1975, I flew almost all the area from the western slopes of the Rockies to the Pacific and from Lake Louise and the Canadian border down into Chihuahua looking for suitable sites. Aside from the time spent in the air, every possible site I saw generated thoughts of a whole series of potential works, first in response to the site itself and then to how the site might suit my original idea. This was an extremely rich period.
Things seen while flying are definitely sources I use for my work. Another example is seeing contrails shadowed on the earth which make flat planes between the contrails themselves and their shadows 30,000 feet below. One experience in particular was very beautiful. I was on a very early solo just prior to receiving my license above a scattered broken cloud deck and below a solid overcast. I was actually flying between two cloud decks which made a very narrow band at the horizon, with clouds above me and clouds below me. I could see through the clouds directly below me since it was not a complete overcast. But as I looked further away, I wasn't able to see through it. As I was looking at the horizon some distance away a jet punched through the lower cloud deck and into the space where I was alone and in less than thirty seconds punched through the upper overcast, leaving a beautiful contrail as a record of its action.
JB: Do your sources extend also to more everyday experiences such as seeing the light reflected off the side of a building or the way particular colors change during the day?
JT: Yes. Light bouncing off the water, or a shaft of light in the forest coming down through the trees, hitting the ground and splashing up, underlighting the trees - situations where you can literally feel the fluid quality of the light.
JB: The kinds of experiences you've been describing are almost open-ended - transitory and seemingly uncontainable - yet in your work they're formed and controlled.
JT: Light is a powerful substance. We have a primal connection to it. But, for something so powerful, situations for its felt presence are fragile. I form it as much as the material allows. I like to work with it so that yoiu feel it physically, so you feel the presence of light inhabiting a space. I like the quality of feeling that is felt not only with the eyes. It's always a little bit suspect to look at something really beautiful like an experience in nature and want to make it ino art. My desire is to set up a situation to which I take you and let you see. It becomes your experience. I am doing that at Roden Crater. It's not taking from nature as much as placing you in contact with it.
JB: You sometimes use the word aperture to describe openings in your structures. Does the framing of experience in your work relate to the process of framing an image in photography?
JT: An experience is not framed so much as a situation is made in which experience can be created. I use the word aperture because it describes an opening that has a purposeful relationship of inside to outside. In other words with some of those spaces I use an aperture so that the space achieves a sense of voIume, with light holding volume. People have talked about illusion in my work, but I don't feel it is an illusion because what you see alludes to what in tact it really is - a space where the light is markedly different.
JB: Those are two very different words: allude, illusion...
JT: Yes. Illusion is something that you think you see yet is not actually there. The work is static in the sense that the physical situation does not change, but the piece changes by virtue of how it's seen. It has to do with how we interpret reality. But none of the so-called illusions in the work are trompe l'oeil. In all cases, these situations allude to what they are. That is, if there is a space which seems to have surface and volume, that surface demarcates the difference between one volume and another and is in fact true.
What pieces from the Prado Series allude to, for example, is actually there. The light inside the space is sized for the color tone that enters it. This is what I call a sensing space This is a situation where the space opens into another space from which it gets its light. That light passes through the opening and is diffused in volume. Because it takes all its light from another space, the sensing space is in some manner an expression of that space.
This situation is similar to that of a camera which looks out at a space through lenses for light energy. Something may be depicted in a photograph using a telephoto lens, a wide-angle lens, or a normal lens. The light can be put through a very small opening, or aperture, so all the rays of light pass through a fine point. Then everything in the photograph seems to be in focus and there is a very large depth of field. A narrow depth of field is achieved using a large aperture. The light energy passes through the aperture into the camera body and is focused on the plane where the film is. You choose what film to use. Film that represents tungsten light as white or sunlight as white or fluorescent light as white can be used; the photograph can be made in black and white or color. But after you develop the photo it is somehow proof of "reality" when - everystep of the way - you have chosen how you wanted to see reality. In other words, rather than being an expression of reality, it is an expression of how you chose to form reality. It's the same thing with the sensing spaces in my work. The space I make looks out onto the space from which it gets light. I make the aperture or opening in relation to both. That opening dictates whether or not the light energy is diffused throughout the space or is imaged in a part of it. Then I form the space to accept the incoming light. I form it in relation to the color that enters it as certain volumes will hold certain color tones. When the volume of space is correctly formed to receive the color that enters it, it fogs up. When it isn't the space seems empty. The color holds the space; just as in painting, certain colors will hold a form and others will not. The color takes on a certain power or presence and appears as if it is inhabiting the space rather than just being on the walls. This space, then, is an expression of the space looked out onto though the form of that expression, its "reality" is of my choosing.
JB: So in what way exactly does your involvement with photography relate to issues in your work?
JT: My work with photography has been important first of all because it is an extremely rich tradition which includes work that at times has a great deal to do with light. But the work l do is with light itself and perception. It is not about those issues; it deals with them directly in a nonvicarious manner so that it is about your seeing, about your perceiving. It is about light being present in a situation where you are rather than a record of light or an experience of seeing from another situation. Because it is a record of light and a conscious forming of a particular reality that comes from a space, photography has allowed me to understand light. At the same time it also helps me to understand sensing because it is a medium that has so much to do with light-sensitive materials and is a way of looking at a situation or space and consciously forming it.
JB: Which comes first in your work: the determination of color or the determination of space?
JT: I work both ends of it. There have been certain color phenomena that I've wanted to work with and I have changed the space accordingly. It is also possible to size the space closely enough so that final adjustments can be made with the color and the light.
JB: How do you decide the nature and extent of color in a work?
JT: That has to do with a particular space and what I intend to do with it. In Jida, from the Prado Series, installed at the University of Delaware, I created an atmosphere where I got the color to literally roll out of the bottom of the space like a mist. That was a work in which I used the existing building as much as possible and then worked with the lights in relationship to it. The results were accomplished by controlling the light outside of the space.
If the color is in the paint on the wall, then in making a structure and allowing Iight to enter it, the color will tend to ride on the walls. But if the color of the wall is white, which in one way is a noncolor, then the color is allowed to enter the space riding on the light, and that color ahas the possibility of inhabiting the space antd holding that volume rather than being the wall. This is true in pieces like Laar and Avar from the Prado Series. There are specific volumes for particular colors, which is no more unusual than painters finding that certain colors will hold certain shapes and not others. In this manner and in other ways in which the space is worked, what I rely on is really more like a painter's eye in three dimensions than a sculptor's.
My work records a vision rather than serving as a record of a vision of something else. Claude Monet, in the Water Lily series (particularly when viewed in a situation similar to that in which they were painted), works with your whole field of vision in a way that has to do with your seeing the painting rather than a visual record of something else. The work responds to your seeing of it. This is also true of the work of Georges Seurat. The paintings of Barnett Newman occupy a large portion of the visual field and flood it with intense color, to an extent beyond which you are actually seeing color - to the point that the paintings become environmental work. Careful sizing of these paintings for the space where they're seen is very important.
JB: Is it important to you to control the approach to your work, the way in which someone comes to expereience it?
JT: My work is about space and the light that inhabits it. It is about how you confront that space and plumb it. It is about your seeing. How you come to it is important. The qualities of the space must be seen, and the architecture of the form must not be dominant. I am really interested in the qualities of one space sensing another. It is like looking at someone looking. Objectivity is gained by being once removed. As you plumb a space with a vision, it is possible to "see yourself see." This seeing, this plumbing, imbues space with consciousness. By how you decide to see it and where you are in relation to it, you create its reality. The piece can change as you move to it or within it. It can also change as the light source that enters it changes.
What will happen at Roden Crater is a good example of that. It's a volcanic crater located in an area of exposed geology, the Painted Desert, an area where you feel geologic time. you have a strong feeling of standing on the surface of the planet. Within that setting, I am making spaces that will engage celestial events. Several spaces will be sensitive to starlight and will be literally empowered by the light of stars millions of light years away. The gathered starlight will inhabit that space, and you will be able to feel the physical presence of that light.
JB: Your work creates a wide range of experience from the physical situation you make or use. Could you talk further about the different places and the different ways in which you work?
JT: Within existing architecture, I create spaces that you look into and spaces that you enter and in which you become enveloped. Other spaces I create are similar to the work in the collection of Count Panza in Italy or to what I am working on at P.S.1 in New York, where I actually make alterations, cuts, or some sort of strong gesture to an architectural space, breaking through to the outside, perhaps removing the roof or the side of the building. Then there is my work at the Roden Crater, and there are commissions or proposals for public projects that aresite-specific, not built within an existing architectural space but designed as independent structures.
At the crater, I am working in a situation that's outside the rectilinear format. In order to establish a neutral format within architecture, it has to be rectilinear; otherwise, it becomes form, not space. At the crater, I want to work with a more natural vision which is absolutely curvilinear. The work will have a horizon and will use the sky overhead. I am taking a natural form and making something that is still neutral because it doesn't in any way work counter to what is there. One of the reasons I chose the shape of the crater is that I wanted to affect the perception of large amounts of space and do it by moving as little material as possible. This, in the end, turns out to be a rather large amount of material, but for the amountof space affected, there is great economy.
JB: Yet, you are still working with the experience of interior.
JT: Yes. The works I will make there are still interiors even though they are mostly open. They create a sense of closure, so you feel as if you're in something, even though it's completely open. That actually allows me to work the skin or the end of the volume which is curved, not flat.
JB: I'm not sure I understand what you mean by the "end of the volume."
JT: There were several pieces in my exhibition at the Whitney Museum where you felt as though there was a tangible surface across an opening, or a demarcation of volume. But those skins or surfaces were generally seen as flat across the opening. In one work in Seattle, House of Wax, I achieved a bowing of the surface. At the crater, working from curvilinear shapes and volumes, 1 can make this bowing up and toward you, or I can make it go away, from you. That's the skin, sense of surface, or "glassing up," that I want to work with. I wanted a curving shape that would work with the sky. I am really using the crater as the format. There Will be spaces there but, in general, a lot of the spaces are just the natural forms - changed to make happen what I want to have happen. They will not look different from natural forms when they're done. But in projects like the design for the winery in California, there is more involvement with determining architectural spaces.
JB: This winery, the Domaine Clos Pegase, was different from most of your other work. Had you worked on the design of an independent structure before?
JT: I changed or made quite a few building designs in the work I did for Count Panza at his villa in Varese, the proposals I made for Rivoli Castle, for a proposed museum at Rollensel near Bonn, as well as a church I designed for him. The winery in northern California was a collaboration with architect Robert Mangurian done in 1984. Robert designed the actual structures, and I designed situations within them, such as an interior courtyard that would work with the sky. The winery design was a good integration of art and architecture. There were places where the structure that was the building was also the structure that was the work, and then there were situations where I designed a work to be within the building structure. It was really interesting because we plannef some places of continuity and others, such as a flight of stairs that was actually a waterfall, where the passage was only visual. It was a good project.
JB: When did you begin your work with architectural projects?
JT: The first architectural work began in 1974 because of the need to have spaces that could achieve what I wanted. Generally, I worked within existing architecture and changed it to suit my needs. But there were times when doing this would not give me the opportunities I wanted, and I began to make projects which were themselves buildings, which had their own structutre. The first of these projects began as an offshoot of the work for Count Panza - the Villa Scheibler in northern Milan. I designed an exterior space very much like the kind of work I am doing at Roden Crater, with a hemispherical bowl shape which would actually shape the sky and which you enter from underneath. This was the beginning of the projects that actually made the structure, working the light into it from the beginning, rather than playing the light off existing structures. The next was at Cascina Taverna, and then I drew several proposals for the project in Bonn.
The first series of spaces in the Bonn proposal involved the volume of the sky coming down to the top of the area in which you were. These spaces are much like the Greek hypaethral spaces, although light in the interior of these spaces worked the color of the sky such that its color was changed by virtue of the coloration of the light on the interior. The density you perceived to be in the sky and its color are worked and changed. This leads up to a space, the outside of which is similar to the crater designed for Villa Scheibler. The space you finally enter then works with curvilinear formations of the sky. Most of the sky spaces are vertical and rectilinear. There is one final sky wall in this proposal, which has pyramidal steps leading up to it and reversed, fifteen degree edges, as in the work in the Prado Series. There is an open wall completely above the horizon. As you step into this space you see a pyramidal form of stairs leading up to total blue because the bottom of the opening is well above eye level. This then leads out to a space that works with the phenomenon of celestial vaulting and the shaping of the sky, by virtue of the way near space is formed to effect that sense of shaping. These are rather tight spaces, usually about sixty to seventy-five meters in diameter. The shaping for the earth form is from fifteen degrees above the horizon down to level ground. That is the part which affects the sky. The coloration is affected by the way white is used, particulary at the entries. Entries are always from below and, as you enter, offer no view of the opposite side of the crater form.
The largest of the pieces which work with the shaping of the sky was proposed for the University of California, San Diego, in La Jolla. This was designed to be an amphitheatre but made within a large hemispherical volume, of which only a portion would be used for the amphitheatre. The structure of the amphitheatre was conceived so that the form works the shape of the sky. The entries are tunnels much like those that come into a coliseum, except they come up from below so that as you enter them you see only sky, until you take the last two steps before stepping into the space itself. At the bottom, the stage area is grass, with a checkering of marble. The stage is actually a platform somewhat similar to the Mayan dance platforms, except that there is a wedge on the middle of each of the four sides of steps, and the steps end about six feet from the platform and continue visually in a very thin line of stainless diamond plate. The doors for access underneath the stage are behind the steps. The stage itself lowers in the center and is held up by four large hydraulic pistons, much like the pistons that raised cars in the old service stations. They have a beautiful polished quality. When the stage is up and you are underneath, there's an area for dressing rooms and stage preparation. The whole stage drops and goes out of sight. From underneath you can completely change a set and then raise the stage back up in its new form. When the performance is over you can walk completely through this space which is also a sky space. When you are in it, the sensation of sky is absolutely flat; when you step outside, it is completely domed. This is accomplished by virtue of the manner in which the celestial vaulting is worked in the crater space formed by the seating of the amphitheatre.
I also designed a church for Count Panza which had four arms in a cruciform shape. Each of those is hollow and has a sky space where the sky is worked flat. The center is a traditional dome except it continues in a sphere with seating suspended out into it. The space works in a very large Ganzfeld using northern light.
JB: What other kinds of spaces have you worked with?
JT: Among works that involve other functions and activities, I have planted pieces that are also swimming pools which have unusual entries. There is a sky space above the pool to work the light of the sky, and the shaping of the skyspace is exactly the same dimensions as the pool. Light is worked into the pool around the gutter or edge. The gutter edge is made so that the water takes the same level as the surrounding stone walk; it is very carefully Ieveled so the water flows over the edge into a very narrow slot. This edge is lit and the bottom of the pool is absolutely black at night. The light will have a very thin sheer quality across the top. During the day, light fills the whole volume of the water in the pool. The entry into these spaces is made from the outside from a smaller pool which can be in another structure. From this pool you bend over and kick under water through a tunnel, usually about eight feet or so and enter the larger pool and the sky space from underneath.
JB: Does function in design interest you as a problem?
JT: The sites I like to use are ones that in general, have no function, spaces that are really only inhabited by consciousness. This inhabiting of space by consciousness is the entry of self into into space through the penetration of vision, which is not limited to just that received by the eyes but also has to do with the entry of self into that which is "seen." A lot of spaces are interesting to me when they're generated not by the architecture of form but by the overlay of thought. I'm also interested in public places that are devoid of their function - Mayan and Egyptian ruins for example and places such as Mesa Verde. These civilizations adapted natural amphitheatres by building within them to create civic spaces. The fact that they are places of ceremony and ritual and are themselves physically powerful makes them meaningful. The impact of the space of the Gothic cathedral, for example and the light within it is much more interesting to me than the rhetoric that is spoken there.
JB: Can you talk more about what you mean by spaces generated by thought?
JT: Daydream spaces, such as those generated by reading a good book, are often more commanding than physical space. While you read, you don't even notice people who walk through the room because you are actually in the space that's generated by the author. This is also true with sound, particularly since the advent of high fidelity and stereophonic sound - the spaces generated by music can be much larger than the one in which you are physically; whether you are in a small room or outside in an open space. This sort of overlay and creation of space that's generated by consciousness is very interesting to me. Another example is when you are driving down a freeway and you find that even though you have been driving reasonably well, you may have missed an exit or in some way feel you haven't really been driving. You've actually becn somewhere else, whether it's deep in thought or in the sort of daydream that we oftcn inhabit. This is, I think, the space that we inhabit most of the time much more than this conscious awake space that is called reality. It's this daydream space overlaid on the conscious awake reality that I like to work with. I'm interested in doing works that seem to come from those places. When you confront a work you can have knowledge of it already. That is, even though you haven't seen light looking like this or space that is inhabited with light in this manner, it seems to be familiar and comes from a place that you know about.
I'm interested in having a work confront you where you wouldn't ordinarily see it. When you have an experience like that in otherwise normal surroundings, it takes on the lucidity of a dream. The realm of the experience exists between the learned limits of our cultural perception and our physical limits. Because the work exists between those two limits it has something to do with how we form reality. Though the work is a product of my seeing it works directly with how you see, as well.
JB: Isn't it similar to an experience you might have in nature that is a perfect expression of what you're thinking or feeling or where a space is understood in such a way that exactly fills and expresses an emotion?
JT: I would certainly like to think that.
JB: Your work has the quality of surrounding the viewer both emotionally and physically...
JT: There are basically two kinds of spaces: one that you look into or enter only with consciousness, and the other that you enter physically. In the one that you enter physically, it's possible to have light come right up to your eyes, almost as if you were underwater. In the space you enter with consciousness, the plumbing of the space is done visually with only the penetration of vision. The vision and structuring of space is done without form so that the light and blushes of light around you limit the penetration of vision. In the pieces that use this particular principle or technique, there is often light at the side and in front of you. As you approach the work, the light begins to recede to the periphery and your vision penetrates through an area or through an opening. This is much like what happens when you turn on the light on a porch. You can see things on the porch quite well at night with the light on, but if you turn the light off, you see further into the night. It's also no different from the situation of the light generated at night by cities which makes it impossible to see stars because of the illumination of the near atmosphere. The same thing can be done in a situation like the crater where you are completely out in the open. If you're standing on black sand in a moonless starry night, you will probably comprehend the deepest amount of visual space you can take in. But if you then walk to an area of white sand, starlight coming off the white sand will dramatically limit the amount of stars you see and thereby bring the space closer.
In the pieces you walk into, I like to have a feeling of the light inhabiting the whole volume, much like light does when you put it in water. If you're in the water, it will come right up to your eyes.The light has a quality of tangible presence.
JB: How did you first come to use light?
JT: My first attempts to use light as space were in 1965 and 1966, using gas to create flat flames. I used hydrazene and different mildly explosive gases in a large-diameter burner with a very small honeycomb interior. The flow of gas that was achieved was quite laminar, and the speeds were the same in the center as out toward the edges. The friction was similar across the entire flow of gas, so I was able to achieve very flat flames. These were the first pieces that I made with light, and actually they were quite beautiful. But I had trouble controlling them. There was much too great attention on the hardware although the flames were tremendously beautiful and exciting. I had a number of explosions when first showing these pieces, and they were soon abandoned.
One of the difficulties of using light is that there isn't yet a tradition of using it in our culture. On the one hand, it is no more unusual to use it than to use stone clay steel or paint. There are materials that you honor and to that degree I was interested in using light as material - not light in glass, scrim, or Plexiglass, but light in the space itself and the qualities of space-making that light without traditional physical form. There is a rich tradition in painting of work about light, but it is not light-it is the record of seeing. My material is light, and it is responsive to seeing- it is nonvicarious. Light isn't something that you form with your hands like clay; you work with everything but what you are going to see. It's almost subtractive in its nature although the use of color is additive. The more light and color you add,the whiter things get; as opposed to mixing colors of paint, which is reflected light or subtractive color.
By making something out of light with light filling space, I am concerned with issues of how we perceive. It's not only a reaction to things physical. For me, working with light in large spaces was more a desire to work in greater realms, a desire that art not be limited to the European structure of works on canvas. This is not too different perhaps than the need of composers to expand the possibilities for music, which led to the development of the symphony. Although the symphony required a great deal from society and rather large patronage, it is a form that we've allowed to grow and one that's very good. Before the rise of the symphony music was limited to what could be made with small instruments. The haiku poem has as much power as a symphony. I think that art should not be limited but be allowed its full range and possibility in material form and scale.
In working with light, what is really important to me is to create an experience of wordless thought, to make the quality and sensation of light itself something really quite tactile. It has a quality seemingly intangible, yet it is physically felt. Often people reach out and try to touch it. My works are about light in the sense that light is present and there; the work is made of light. It's not about light or a record of it, but it is light. Light is not so much something that reveals, as it is itself the revelation.
JB: How has your use of light changed over the last twenty years?
JT: The early pieces had a much greater reliance on the source of light and a lot to do with the hardware of forming the light. They were much more involved particularly in the projector series, with the hard, crisp forming of an image. Even some of the early works, such as the projector series had shapes and forms that were unbuildable yet existed in three-dimensional space. You could not realize them by a form that existed in the real world. Later pieces had less to do with hardware, often just using simple sixty or seventy-five watt clear frosted light bulbs, and were more involved with the subtle knowing of where light went, particularly off of one or two surfaces. These pieces also had much more to do with ambient lighting and light inhabiting a full space.
The most recent works have dealt quite a bit with the difference betwceen rod and cone vision. In these you enter a very dark space in which there is absolutely no vision. In a period of three to four minutes, you can recognize some form. Upon staring at it, this form will seem to disappear because its size is very near to that of the area of color vision. Occasionally, colors will rain outside of this form as this kind of seeing comes and goes. This particularly happens if you don't look straight at it. The first of these pieces, Pleiades, was made at the Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh. The longer you stay in these pieces, the more the difference between having your eyes open and having your eyes closed is diminished. You see similar things whether your eyes are open or shut. After a while the seeing that takes place in the space affects the color sensation you have when you first close your eyes. These pieces have their source in the kind of color vision you have when you first close your eyes and see a kaleidoscope of colors for a moment or so. In a very pure space it's hard to cleanse your eyes of these sensations.
JB: In the beginning, when you were making your first pieces, how did you come to make your art the space rather than something put inside a space or on a wall ?
JT: Artists are often accused of spending more time working on their studios than on the art that leaves them. To some degree that was true of me in the sense that in the end I actually made the whole studio a piece and the pieces became studio size. That's the work that finally did go out. It took a little while because I started with pieces that worked with more discrete portions of spaces before I worked with the entire space. I actually wanted to work with space plastically and I approached this with a painter's eye in three dimensions.
Often you will find artists who are involved with what I call the "cargo cult," that is, they tend to collect tools and have great love for tools, often more love for the tool than for the job the tool does or the work that it makes. That's a bit true with me, too, in the sense that I'm finally working on something with the Roden Crater project which begins to use all the tools that I have collected. I feel that the tool should be honored as well for what it does. I am as interested in honoring the airplane as an instrument of flight, for example, as I am the flight itself.
JB: Could you describe what you will be doing for the exhibition at The Museum of Contemporary Art?
JT: At MOCA's Temporary Contemporary building, the realm of the work will range from extremely bright sunlight, working with light outside, to something barely visible, working with the light inside the self. I want it to be like the light that illuminates the mind as opposed to the light that illuminates the eye. The exhibition will include some of my earlier pieces, some never seen before, and work made specifically for this exhibition. Some of the spaces you will enter only with vision, and others you will enter completely. The early pieces will work with discrete, small portions of a space, and the later ones are full spaces that you enter. Some begin with opaque darkness and then yield to vision. One piece, as you look along it, is very translucent, and as you move it becomes transparent and begins to vanish.
There will be four projector pieces and five spaces. The projector pieces are from between 1967 and 1969. The spaces are from 1969 to the present. Only a few of these pieces have been shown before. There will also be a whole portion of the exhibition devoted to work on the crater - plans, models, photographs, and documentation.
JB: How closely do you rely on science or technical information from other disciplines in your work?
JT: The work I do does not have to do with science or demonstrations of scientific principles. My work has to do with perception - how we see and how we perceive. Though I use the information and need the help of people in the sciences to calculate positions of celestial events and to solve problems of refraction caused by changes in atmospheric pressure and temperature, for example, my work does not push the boundaries of science. I think artists have a lot more to do with investigating the limits of perception than science does at this time. The basic difference, though, is one of intent. I am more interested in posing questions than in answering them. I also think artists are more practical than scientists in that when they find something that works and is useful, they're quite willing to use it without necessarily knowing why or how it works.
I have an interest in the invisible light, the light perceptible only in the mind. A light which seems to be undimmed by the entering of the senses. I want to address the light that we see in dreams and make spaces that seem to come from those dreams and which are familiar to those who inhabit those places. Light has a regular power for me. What takes place in viewing a space is wordless thought. It's not as though it's unthinking and without intelligence; it's that it has a different return than words.