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  • Mark Longhurst

Light, Dark, and James Turrell

"Live up to the light thou hast, and more will be granted thee."  Quaker writer Caroline Fox I walked up the socially-distanced ticket line to MASS MoCA yesterday, holding my five-year-old's hand, seven-year-old striding adjacent. All masked, the box office staff person greeted us outside, asked us about COVID symptoms, and, having none, the vast world of my favorite museum opened up to us once again. A new era begins. My, what a refuge MASS MoCA is in a pandemic—enormous industrial rooms housing visionary art, six-foot circular floor stickers reminding us of the recommended safe span from people, not to mention profuse and well-placed hand sanitizer stations. Of course, the visit did not approximate contemplation of the quiet sort, with boys rushing from room to room, but the wonder we kids and dad alike expressed at Blane De St. Croix's three-story installation certainly dipped into the unitive realm.  We make our way, as we usually do, down a bridge covered in soundscape, through a room lit by 150 LED fixtures, round a corner, and—for as long as I can herd the rambunctious boys—we linger in light and space artist James Turrell’s room entitled “Dissolve.”

This piece invites slow seeing, as bright and shifting purple turns to blue turns to green turns to white hazy light. Sometimes the light becomes too much to take in, and it invites the viewer to develop interior focus and nestle into a different field of perception. Lured by light.  James Turrell's roots are fascinating: he grows up as a Quaker, and his mother tells him to go inside and greet the light. His father is an aviator, and Turrell greets the light in a different way when he, too, learns to fly airplanes. He even flies monks out of Tibet as part of his conscientious objector service in Vietnam. His art career begins and grows with light. His first piece is a mind-bending experience of light projected into a corner that looks, to the viewer, to be a floating cube. But it’s not material—it’s light. I experience James Turrell’s installations as sacred spaces, inviting the elusive Holy, creating room for the inner light to gleam. Much like a monastery. And in fact, Turrell has made room for light even in more traditional sacred spaces, from the “Twilight Epiphany” Skyspace, which opens up to sun’s shifting colors in Houston, to the sky-view from a wooden bench in an actual Philadelphia Quaker Meetinghouse In John's Gospel, Jesus has a showdown with the Pharisees, likely in the Jewish Temple. The light-filled sacred space, during what is quite likely a light ceremony, is thronged with pilgrims, and Jesus claims to be light. For spiritual people, though, it's easy to fall into a light vs. darkness trap, in which we treat the darkness as other, as an enemy. John's Gospel and Plato, too, help set this trap; they picture light and darkness locked in opposition. A cave from which I must escape to find enlightenment. Darkness as separate from light. Given America’s white-supremacist, slave-owning legacy, it is only a tiny step for darkness to become inferior, all given biblical injunction by Christians and clergy. That's why, I believe, the dazzling darkness must be extolled along with the piercing light.  It’s also easy to talk about light while avoiding it: I’ve been around spirituality scenes long enough to see how the language of light often masks the true integration and healing that is needed in people. As Carl Jung said, “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making darkness conscious.”  Darkness, as John's Gospel tells in its very first chapter, does not overcome light. But any visitor to a James Turrell Dark Space, too, will be able to tell you that there is light in the darkness.  At the end of Turrell’s Dark Space “Hind Sight,” at MASS MoCA, a light appears, nearly imperceptible, at the periphery of our vision. It is there even if you don’t see it. If we only see in crisp categories of light and darkness, then sometimes we miss the light in darkness or the darkness in light because we’re simply not paying attention. The Quakers, of course, have known about light since their beginning. We all carry within us inner light, they said. The light of Christ is not separate from our souls. Reacting to New England Calvinism, they claimed that instead of original sin, there is original light, a seed of light within that is connected to God. As Quaker writer Caroline Fox wrote, “Live up to the light thou hast, and more will be granted thee.” No wonder Quaker-raised James Turrell sees light so profoundly. Light, in Turrell’s work, collapses the distinction between subject and object: Light is not only out there. Light is around us and in us, drawing us into an experiential relationship. The inner light surely doesn’t mean we always live in light, but it’s a way of reminding us that it’s always there. Some of us may be in need of a few new light bulbs! We may have to train our vision. We may have to sit in darkness for a while before we see light, but the practice of seeing light can make us whole.


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©2019 by Mark Longhurst.