James Turrell "Ganzfeld" Aural at Berlin Jewish Museum


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“The ganzfeld effect” is a phenomenon of perception caused by exposure to an unstructured, uniform stimulation field. Meaning in German complete/entire field, this perceptual deprivation is the result of the brain amplifying neural noise in order to look for the missing visual signals. The noise is interpreted in the higher visual cortex and gives rise to hallucinations. American artist James Turrell (Pasadena, LA, 1943) creates a similar experience based on the phenomenon of the total loss of depth perception as in the experience of a white-out. Berlin’s Jewish Museum exhibits until 30th of September next year 2019 an immersive light work of his “Ganzfeld” Aural series. 

For more than five decades now, Turrell has centred his artistic attention on exploring how we perceive light and space. He has investigated the self-awareness of our various senses, conscious and unconscious modes of seeing, and the emotional quality of our feeling for light, space, and time. He plays with the perceptual mechanics of vision, and vice versa, in ways usually reserved for those on psychedelic drugs.

The ongoingGanzfeld series is one of his earliest investigations, a body of works he has been evolving over the past forty years. Aural made its debut in Spain in 2004 at IVAM (Institut Valencià d’Art Modern). Now, reinterpreted for the Jewish Museum, Aural is presented in a temporary pavilion also specifically designed for Turrell piece in the museum famously expanded garden at the beginning of the 21st century in deconstructivist style by architect Daniel Libeskind.


Turrell’s medium is pure light creating liminal zones of experience. He once said about the effect of his Ganzfeld installations, “My work has no object, no image and no focus. With no object, no image and no focus, what are you looking at? You are looking at you looking. What is important to me is to create an experience of wordless thought.”

The installation – a space without contours

Upon entering the Ganzfeld Aural installation, visitors are immersed in a room that reveals neither its light source nor its dimensions, an atmosphere of indefinite and dematerialized space. The uniform, monochrome lighting makes the room appear without contours as he uses powerful but soft light, which completely eliminates the contrast. Our eyes lose their frame of reference and light, colour, plus space melt together, resulting in a feeling of disorientation.

Seeing behind the eye

In the absence of any object, image, or focal point, our powers of perception themselves become the object of contemplation. The installation’s gradual colour shifts are emphasized by stroboscopic lights. Suddenly, we perceive a small stimulus and changes, which makes the inside of the eye visible. Turell demands time from the visitors, our eyes must first adjust before the light’s effect fully unfolds to lead us to dreamlike experiences reminiscent of thick fog, expanses of snow, or the dark of night.

The artist

James Turrell is the son of an aeronautical engineer father and doctor mother, both Quakers. He rambled through life, earned a pilot’s license and delivering supplies to remote mines, studied perceptual psychology, mathematics, geology and astronomy. His experiments in a shuttered hotel in Santa Monica made him a connoisseur of sunlight and lightbulbs —ultraviolet, fluorescent, LEDs— and launched his career. Some find his most immersive works, such as the Perceptual Cells, too aggressive, hence the provide visitor with a panic button and one usually need to sign a waiver to enter one.

His monumental project, Roden Crater, an extinct volcano spotted while flying his little plane over Arizona, remains unfinished. He bought the land and has spent four decades turning it into a big, cosmic observatory, carving and shaping chambers and tunnels to catch and play with the light of the sun, moon and stars. However, Turrell fame exploded to audiences who never heard of him because of a “homage” —although he denies having anything to do with— by Canadian rapper Drake, whose video clip features him dancing in luminous rooms with Turrell-style “ganzfeld” effects. The video went viral, spawning countless memes and derivatively showcasing Turrell’s work.

The patrons

“Ganzfeld” Aural is a gift by the collectors Dieter and Si Rosenkranz. Rosenkranz, who is not Jewish himself, is a 92-year-old entrepreneur, an important cultural figure and a longstanding patron of the arts in Berlin. His activities as Maecenas are a tribute to Berlin’s Jewish bourgeoisie and their cultural patronage, which ended forcefully and violently in the Nazi era.

Does Turrell’s work reconfigure the usual relationship between the work and the viewer? Do the people experience the art? In his web page, he states, “People come to your work with very different things in themselves that you cannot change, and your work might just do nothing to them too.”

He thinks his works are like inducing light in the consciousness. Light supply vitamin D, without it, there is no life. In this web page, he states,

“We are creatures of light, especially certain types of light. Clearly, we weren’t made for the midday sun. We were made for Twilight. For reduced light. When light is reduced the pupil opens and we can really feel it.”

For sure, his work is the sort not seen but instead experienced. The more you surrender, the more profound it can be.

“Ganzfeld” Aural, will be on view for more than a year, through September 30, 2019.

Text: María Muñoz. Images: Ganzfeld Aural, 2018; © Jewish Museum Berlin, gift of Dieter and Si Rosenkranz, photo: Florian Holzherr

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