This weekend I had the opportunity to experience James Turrell's "Perpetual Cell" at LACMA. There are two installations within this exhibit- Light Reignfall and Dark Matters.
The exhibit requires tickets and gives you an allotted time for viewing. Unlike the typical museum experience, "Perpetual Cell" is mostly a solitary experience, and you are not peering over the shoulders of various museum visitors to sneak a peak at any given work of art. When you approach "Perpetual Cell" you first encounter a slightly imposing large white sphere. In the front of the sphere is an institutional looking computer set-up and two attendants wearing white lab coats. The entrance to the sphere is exactly how I imagine an MRI machine to look. It has a long sliding bed that rolls through a narrow entrance, directly into the center of the sphere. Before laying down on the bed, however, there was the matter of signing a waiver, which releases them from liability for seizures, disability, paralysis, or...death. (Wait, are we still at LACMA?!) Additionally, an emergency contact with a phone number is required. Then you’re asked whether you want the “soft” or “hard” experience. (Excuse me? I don't believe we know each other that well, yet.) According to the clinical looking attendants, the hard program has more strobe light effect and the soft program has a warmer blanket effect. After choosing the hard program, I followed the instructions to remove shoes, and take my place on the rolling bed, head facing in toward the sphere. They handed me an emergency remote to end the experience prematurely, and placed Bose headphones on my ears. With a slightly nervous thumbs-up and the release of a long deep breath, they pushed me into the epicenter of the sphere. The entry way felt much smaller than it had appeared from afar, and it felt as if my nose nearly grazed the top of the opening. Finally inside the sphere, closed off from the outside, I took note of my surroundings. A warm electric blue light engulfed the room, and suddenly my sense of depth perception diminished. The walls of the sphere seemed infinite, similarly close yet far away. Immediately, a buzzing noise intensified in the headset, and it peaked with an explosion of kaleidiscopic light all around me. The intensity of the photonic barrage was matched with an electronic hum that lightly guided but did not overshadow the visual experience. The colors flashing in rapid fire cannot be described because I'm fairly certain that they were not in my Crayon box and I'm truly not sure I had ever seen some of them before in my life. Similarly, the crystalline patterns were inexplicably intricate. What I think was about 5 minutes into the experience, I realized that despite opening and closing my eyes, everything seemed the same. I did not feel the difference between having my eyes open or closed, nor did I feel the need to blink. At times the light was soothing and sometimes overwhelming. At one point, I ran my hand across the front of my face, to focus on something at a specific depth, and re-focus my vision. After 12 minutes, the lights returned to a soft glow, and the bed began to move toward the exterior. My nose slipped past the top of the entry, and I was re-introduced to the exterior of the sphere and lab coat wearing attendants. Nearly in unison they ask, "So, how was it?" Unable to really come up with an immediate response, I say, "cool, yeah, really cool, thanks." But it wasn't just cool. It was nerve-wrecking, exhilarating, strange, over-whelming, soothing, inexplicable, and I was admittedly happy for it to be over. I slipped on my shoes, and walked toward the entrance to Dark Matters.
At the entrance to the installation was a LACMA employee, who gave the instructions, "Follow the railing, and you're going to turn left, the right, then right again, and then its to the left. You'll find chairs at the end. I'll let you know when your time is up in 20 minutes." So I set off down the hallway, into the dark abyss. Holding the railing tightly, and walking cautiously, wishing I had paid better attention to the lefts and rights that he had instructed. I thought to myself, "yep, that's a wall, turn, yep, hit a wall again, turn" and then the railing ended. I reached my hand out into the infinite darkness and searched for a chair. I couldn't help but get a case of the giggles though absolutely nothing was funny. It was just ridiculous, searching for a chair, in a dark room. Finally, my hand ran over the arm rest, and I quickly took a seat. And then there was nothing. No sound, no light. I opened and closed my eyes, only to realize that once again, it made no difference. Only this time, I ran my hand in front of my face, and I could not see it, despite the fact that it was inches away. So, I thought, if I cant see my own hand, what else is out there, what is this room that I'm in. Is it large, or no bigger than my closet at home? I relaxed into the chair and stared into the darkness. After what must have been ten minutes, a faint green glow appeared in my vision and danced the the movement of my eyes. My eyes had adjusted to the darkness, and the subtleties of the darkness were becoming more clear. Just when I was ready to be done, the familiar voice bellowed through the dark hallway, "Times Up!" With a slight sense of relief, I made my way to the railing, through the winding hallway, and back to the comfort of the exhibition hall.
This was my experience at "Perpetual Cell", and it was unique to me, and to my eyes, but I think that's the point. We are each able to see things, and we are never quite sure how the same experience will be shared by another person, or another set of eyes. "Perpetual Cell" begs the question of how much are we really seeing. It creates the juxtaposition between how much is produced and projected by the human mind and how much external influence we are absorbing. The beauty of Light Reingfall is that it blurs the lines of the object and subjective experience, and Dark Matters is effectively the perfect 'sister' installation. All in all, not your average trip to LACMA, and an exhibit well worth experience for yourself.