Light as Something Existent by Atsushi Sugita

Light is existent. In James Turrell’s works light becomes still; it remains fixed in space. It takes on both volume and form. We perceive light as a substantial presence. Light is not fleeting but lies in quietude.

Turrell deals with light, or perhaps we should say, nothing but light matters to him. Even in Solitary, a lightproof, soundproof closed space for a single person, light is the medium of expression. But Turrell tackles and exploits no commonly known light. He does not concern himself with the light that, as the swiftest in the universe, flashes through space from its source to some other place or goal, or the light waves that form complicated patterns in interference, yet are understandable also as masses of particles, or the light that is refracted and reflected, or the light that sweeps the surface of the world and carries its features as information to the lens of the human eye. It is no light describable so scientifically, no such known light, but the hardly known light that Turrell is concerned with. It is the light that receives no notice in an obscure corner where it has been pushed away, the light that is ignored and entirely forgotten, or the light that our closed minds keep us from seeing. It is this light that Turrell grapples with.

However, it is only by our minds that this light is dismissed, eliminated and covered up. Indeed Turrell’s light is something we meet too often every day. It is no well-known light, yet it is frequently encountered. It does not appear only to Turrell, a man who flies an airplane and loves sky diving, but exists in everyone’s daily experiences. Instead of “experience,” we might use Turrell’s favorite expression, perception.

Turrell’s light is neither vectorial nor medium-like but substantial. Unlike the light grasped in our mind, it is perceived commonly, yet is almost unknown. Notwithstanding our experience or perception of this light, we are rarely aware of it, and possibly are forced into ignorance by some learned prejudice. Light is taken to be vectorial, medium-like and insubstantial. We force this definition on it, but it is not so by nature. All of Turrell’s works disclose to us light’s existent and substantial nature, from his early pieces using projectors, to his Aperture works, to Change of State, a construction with a plastic dome with a diameter of one meter in which the viewer thrusts his or her head, to the humorous Dusseldorfer Light Salon, and of course Roden Crater, a huge project exploiting a dormant volcano in Arizona. In all these pieces Turrell proves light to be neither vectorial nor medium-like but thoroughly substantial.


What Turrell’s work illuminates is the dark side of light. Bright light conceals a dimness, a shadowy spot that no one can see. Originally it was by this dimness that light was defined, yet as time went on this shadowy light lost brightness amidst the thickening gloom. Being longer bright, it became invisible. This primitive, intuitive, substantial light is invisible, and it is this light that Turrell attempts to illuminate.

Most people think that they understand light fully, but in fact their knowledge is limited to a certain phase of the matter. Indeed, when we face the phenomenon of light without our preconceived notions, it does not appear as we might have thought. Suppose, for instance, that a desk lamp illuminates a book left open, a memo, or a writing instrument. Whoever is versed in the theory of vision, which has been elaborated through a long path of laborious research since the days of ancient Greece, could give an explanation of the phenomenon: light emitted from the source of the lamp reflects off miscellaneous objects on the desk, passes through the lenses of a pair of optic organs set in the front part of the human head, and forms images on each retina, which photoreceptive cells then transmit to the brain as electrical signals.

But of course this is not the way things are when-perceived directly. What appears to our eyes is no more than an area in which some objects have different degrees of brightness. We are never able to catch the universe's swiftest movement of photons, to see the bright lines of complicated geometric patterns or to feel the impulses that run from the retina to the visual area of the occipital lobe. On the contrary, if we traced the phenomenon while taking more care to avoid prejudices, we would find the space between the source of light and the illuminated objects not so transparent as to solely serve the purpose of transmitting light. According to scientific interpretation, light is not perceived as the objects on the desk are; it does not have form. In other words, the space in which light is traveling should be an absolutely clear, invisible void that exposes everything behind.

In our actual experiences, however, light forms part of our perception. The cone of light produced by the lamp on the desk, a glimmering display in a dark room that someone fails to turn off, a bright rectangle on a distant crossroads ahead of a person walking down a dark lane, round street lamps looming on a misty night, shafts of light falling through clouds as in a religious painting, and daylight coming into a greatly curved tunnel from its still unseen exit—each of these is an objective entity which can be part of a person’s vision. Of course I am not arguing whether fine particles floating in space cause the diffusion of light. Certainly this fact may not be irrelevant, but regardless of its relevance, there appears to be a hazy cone of light in the space between the lamp and desk. What fills the end of your passageway is a mass of daylight. We are not in a laboratory but in the familiar space of day-to-day life. In a place solely adapted to experimentation it often happens that the substantive nature of light suffers from obscurity because of the alleged investigation. Light should not be observed but intuited and perceived.

Light is something whose presence we intuit in our daily circum-stances. Over the desk before our eyes, there is no invisible movement of light acting on our eyes, but real light that has a specific volume and form just as diverse objects on the desk do. Turrell adheres to real light like this, which, despite its assumed invisibility, is constantly perceived in our actual experiences. In the past, however, this light was indeed visible. Why is it not so any longer? This is an irony bearing on mankind’s successive efforts to know the nature of light.


We associate sight too closely with light. Sight without light or light without sight would be an absurdity to us. They seem indispensable to one another. Our presumptions about this relationship have gone too far by now, and we should dispose of them. At the very least we should regard light as not relative to but independent of the act of seeing.

People have always considered light not as an entity in itself, but in its relation to sight. Connected with sight, light inevitably acquires one peculiarity, that is, a vectorial nature. The sense of sight is a means to know one’s external world. One’s external world means everything except oneself, and as far as one’s sight is concerned, it also includes the body and everything except the optic organs. Sight is communication between the external object and cognitive subject, and is not two-way but one-way, or in other words, has the nature of a vector as it tends from one point to another.

Sight necessarily confers this one-way vectorial characteristic on light, as it is the medium for communication. Light steadily delivers its load to the human lens for the sake of sight, or at least makes arrangements so that even if your optic organs inadvertently pass over a certain point in space, no void will surround you. As long as it is regarded as inseparable from sight, light can not go beyond the bounds of its vectorial nature.

It was in medieval Islamic culture that research on sight developed into a system similar to the modern theory of vision. Among others, Ibn al Haytham, a natural philosopher of the tenth century, played a great part in this field. Instead of the extramission theory, he adopted the intromission theory. According to the first theory, objects are visible because a kind of matter that departs from the eye returns with data it gathers on them. The latter theory of intromission, however, is that something projected out by each object reaches the eye or optic organs, whose excitement produces visual images.1  By solving a theoretical difficulty in the intromission theory, Ibn al Haytham laid the foundation of our modern theory of vision. He also incorporated into his system a geometric study on rays established by Euclid, who, in ancient Greece, had propounded the extramission theory as opposed to the intromission theory. Thus al Haytham succeeded in backing up the Euclidean achievement theoretically.

Still,what is most important, his system utilized an analysis of light by al Kindi, a natural philosopher who had prospered in Baghdad a century earlier than he. Al Kindi showed that each surface point of an object gives off light independently. Inclusion of this analysis made it evident that, in actions between the object arid optic organs, light takes the role that had been attributed to “simulacra,”  “eidola,”  “fires of vision,” or “spirits of vision” before. Hence arose the extremely close relationship between sight and light. The optic organs became equivalent to the photoreceptors, and visual images to constructions in geometric optics. Since that moment of intellectual development, light has been unthinkable unless as a vector.

Ibn al Haytham’s theory of vision was then elaborated by Roger Bacon and Johannes Kepler to emphasize the vectorial nature of light. But, during those days when Newton maintained his particle theory, if it had been possible to stop them, one still would have been able to imagine solid light standing in quietude. However, as light turned out to be a kind of wave, scholars took up not light in itself but only what is transmitted by it, and they came to show more interest in phenomena caused by this transmission and the physiological processing of transmitted material. After the wave theory got the better of its opponent, light still remained vectorial, because waves too are vectors.

When Goethe tried to ascribe light to sensation, when the eighteenth- century priest Berkeley sublimated it and finally managed to extract a pure vision in the form of “light and color,” and even when Ernst Mach tried to reduce everything to sensation, they all found light vectorial, assuming that it moves from the outside to our sensory organs. The theory of reducing light to sensation could dispense with the idea of existence, but whatever form it takes, it could not help presupposing the active nature of the external world. David Marr, a pioneer in the current arithmetic theory of vision, also started from the same point that was the basis for Bishop Berkeley’s pure vision.

Even in an age when computers are used to simulate the process of cognition, light never casts off its vectorial character, but instead this notion is further enhanced and accepted as a firmly established fact. Computer graphics generally practices ray tracing, that is, the method of retracing the path of light from the picture elements of the display, which correspond to the photoreceptive cells of the retina, as in the extramission theory once proposed by Euclid and others. Our idea of light is more and more approaching that of a vector or movement. Since the days of Ibn al Haytham, light has always been discussed in terms of movement, never of existence.

The investigation of the sense of sight prompted the vectorial treatment of light. As discussed above, this is sight’s intrinsic nature. We can even say that man’s senses are all vectorial by nature because their basic function is to acquire information about the external world. Each of the senses, such as hearing, smell, taste, and touch, is defined by a vector, having a starting point somewhere in the external world and a terminal or its special organ in the human body. In this respect, Goethe, Berkeley and even Mach, despite their seeming objections, promoted the vectorial tendency of light.

The eye as the sense of sight, like the other sensory organs, could be grasped only in its relation with something vectorial that goes from one point to another. Or, it may be possible to say, the eye itself is a vectorial organ. Of course, besides the senses, every organ is vectorial by way of having both input and output. From another point of view, the existence of objects offers a sole resistance to these organs, among which, though, the eye opposes their existence most sharply.

Even if we admitted the existence of things instead of reducing them to sensation, we would have to cope with positivism, which asserts the nonexistence of invisible things such as countries on the opposite side of the globe, neighboring streets, what lies behind a wall, the back of the book before you, or even what is outside your closed eyelids. This thoroughgoing positivism is based on excessive faith in observation or sight. But of course our daily life could not be sustained without supposing the existence of things we cannot see directly before us. This fact detracts from the reliability of sight serving positivism, but the less reliable it becomes, the more relentless the attack against objects lingering at the border between existence and nonexistence, and consequently these objects vanish from the realm of existence, just as light has slipped away from our understanding.


Light is enclosing you. Slowly it is swallowing up everything. The place enveloped in dazzling light no longer admits the darkness that scares people. But is this true? It is not impossible that what is believed to be light is entirely different from light, and is rather a new kind of darkness. It may not be light but darkness that is enveloping you.

At the beginning of this century physicists could not comprehend why, in the photoelectric effect, or the emission of electrons by light, discharged electric energy is determined not by the strength of light but by its wavelength. Einstein solved the problem by finding a particle aspect in light. Thus the particle theory propounded by Pythagoras was revived again after Newton’s claim. Light began wavering between this view and the wave theory that had gained overpowering authority by that time. Then the two ideas merged together under the name of complementarily, forming the basis of a new paradigm in physics. Meanwhile Einstein, who never ceased to oppose the stochastic interpretation in quantum theory, decisively established the physical importance of light by specifying its velocity as an absolute invariant in the four-dimensional universe.

Light, which was thus scrutinized with increasing exactitude in the domain of science, seemed to indicate a climax reached by the scientific mind that expounds the mechanism of the universe from the theory of light. While it is worthwhile to repeat, scientific analysis like this can only explain one phase of its object. Detailed, precise exposition of things utterly irrelevant to daily phenomena may indeed uncover a mechanism hidden behind common, insignificant scenes, and when we look into our everyday life from this point of view, we may make a new discovery, but this is no more than a partial knowledge. If we suppose that all the things that, concerning a certain phenomenon, can be grasped through perception constitute one theoretical plane, then the partial scientific knowledge can be likened to a segment or another plane that crosses it at right angles, casting only a small shadow over it.

Light has undergone this vertically searching analysis since the particle and wave theories came to the fore in ancient Greece. It has never been grasped as a substantial presence, but has been probed as a scientific phenomenon exclusively and in depth even though it has never been directly perceived as such. No doubt, as in the cases of other phenomena, this manner of research has elucidated part of the nature of light but, I repeat, the elucidation bears on only one aspect. It affords no ready explanation concerning the bright cone produced by the desk lamp or what fills the depths of Turrell’s aperture, light neither vectorial nor medium- like but substantial. This kind of light can be felt through no other path than direct perception, as an integrated sensation unaffected by our theoretical notions of sight, yet the phenomenon of sight is still given in purely analytic terms, and presented as something greatly different from its true nature. In short, here we witness the repression of total perception by partial analysis, of total light by partial light, of perceptional light by experimental light. Or we can say, scientific light is repressing unscientific light.

The word “unscientific” tends to have a negative nuance, but in fact should connote nothing negative because, as we see in the case of pre-capitalism, science always needs what lies outside it. To be unscientific merely means to be situated outside science. In like manner, there is still on the earth a noncapitalist economy, which never loses its dignity by being so.

Science can be active only if there is still the domain of the unscientific. Science is a movement toward conquering regions still out of its reach. Even so, we do not have to give up our perceptive understanding of those fields which science enables US to understand and utilize in a theoretical manner. However, we must confine our theoretical discourse to those areas where all terms are thoroughly defined.However, we must confine our theoretical discourse to those areas where all terms are thoroughly defined. Only people particularly versed in science should attempt to use it to classify things unknown, vague and enigmatic, the future and all the world or the whole of the universe. The others, continuing to live respectably in the land of non- science, could consume product from the land of science as necessity demands. However, they must not fail to reclaim all those ideas and perceivable experiences they have so extravagantly given up. Light too is one of those things which they must take back.

Turrell calls his art “perceptual work.”  “Perception” is cognition by the whole of a human being. Of course Turrell uses the word in this sense, but the current perception" that abounds in our discourses is clouded by the study of artificial intelligence and cognitive science; the word hints at an expectation for cognition or understanding through the use of a kind of arithmetic theory or hardware. Even the basic term perception" is severely affected by repressive scientific and even, perhaps, is violated by it. Hence Turrell says, “I have an interest in the invisible light, the light perceptible only in the mind.”2  He dissociates with the visible presence because sight is spoiled by science; he refers to the part of the mind that has not been influenced by scientific thought. Light is not perceived as itself as long as it is tainted with sight or tarnished by science.

Gazing at invisible light, we perceive pure light and nothing else. As was suggested by its primary function of illuminating darkness, light has been a symbol of man’s intellect. The world brightened by light is the realm of knowledge. In the present age, light in this sense may translate into the scientific intellect or Wertern intellect. However, light as a torch causes darkness. Although illumination changes one’s perception, it only illuminates some objects by its peculiar radiance and creates a shadow over the others that have been invisible until then. This shadow is dark and vast. The invisible light that interests Turrell is the light that has sunken into such a darkness. Gazing at it, we are gazing at the darkness of the scientific intellect, or Western intellect. Gazing light as just light, and darkness as just darkness.


Turrell releases light. Whereas his aperture stills the infinite freedom of light, the fastest traveler in the universe, it frees light back into the primordial expanse of perception. Its nature shifts from vector to existence. Although it was wildly flying about a moment ago, it stands in quietude now as if having exhausted its energies.

There is not much significance in discussing Turrell’s works in terms of art history. Neither minimalism nor conceptualism can fully explain the works’ force. However, this would be true for other artists as well if art history were, for example, a dialectic evolution of art. With blind faith in progress and evolution, one could criticize Turrell by objecting that his style is too anachronistic in postmodern circumstances. But in most cases, postmodern reviews and works, while making a gesture of mutilating and invalidating the Western intellect, indiscriminately resort and abjectly submit to scientific knowledge, the core of the Western intellect, or, as is disclosed by the very fact that their criticism benefits from the doctrine of post-modernism, they always exercise authority, or in other words, merely conform to the traditional principles of the Western intellect. But Turrell says “I am more interested in posing questions than in answering them.”3

Turrell’s works are modest in outward appearance but are radical attempts to question the fundamentals of the Western intellect that distinguishes the modern age. They do not rely on evolution by dialectic sublation nor do they aim to function as an alternative to modern science. Again, they do not claim to return to premodern stages, but only quietly show what the Western intellect has hitherto concealed and made invisible. Their silence tells of the calm artist’s doubt.

Turrell’s works make use of various pieces of scientific information. For example, Pleiades, a work of darkness, utilizes the difference in function between the two types of photoreceptive cells, that is, cones and rods. The cones are suitable for discerning colors at light places. crowding toward the center of the retina. The rods serve to make out delicate shades in dark places, mostly gathering near the periphery of the retina. In the darkness designed by Turrell, the viewer experiences the difference between the two kinds of cells during the period of time when the eyes’ adaptation to darkness takes place.

This application of knowledge requires a good understanding of science. However, his work is based on his perceptive experiences as much as, or possibly, more than on this scientific understanding. It is greatly influenced what he has experienced in flight: plunging into sunshine from darkness; drifting under the gradations of the vast firmament; and seeing light dispersed through a thinly misted space. Even so, his work is not intended to convey his personal experiences as such. He does not try to base the works on his private experiences. His work should be experienced by viewers for themselves. “I do feel my work is about your seeing rather than investigating my seeing.”4

Ordinary light is lost in oblivion. We no longer remember now we saw it. We must bring it back. James Turrell tries to expose this light as something intimate. This light emerges into each viewers mind individually after his or her personal experience of it. It is neither the vectorial light cruising at the universe’s highest speed, nor solely the medium for conveying visual information to the eye. It is the light that obliquely blocks a narrow lane ahead of you, or faintly illuminates the clouds, or escapes through a hidden skylight to a night sky. To people who cling to the idea of art as a system, Turrell’s light may appear to be nothing but an illusion cunningly acting on the unprepared sensory organs. Computerized virtual spaces would be more attractive to them, although most of these works postpone the solution of our dilemma in favor of the progress of technology. Everything is a matter of personal experiences, but I hope to keep out of others’ private spaces. Instead of struggling for interfaces with virtual reality spaces, I am eager to enjoy some solitary minutes adapting to the darkness, and to persist down the hard path to Roden Crater, for in due course the light that was once visible but is no longer will slowly come up before my eyes.

1I borrow the terms from David C. Lindberg, Theories of Vision from Al Kindi to Kepler, Chicago and London, 1976.

2Occluded Front, The Lapis Press, 1985, p.46.

3ibid., p.46.

4James Turrell, Edition Cantz, 1992, p.61.