Last weekend was a wonderful chance to get off campus. There was an art show I’d been meaning to see at the Guggenheim by James Turrell. The show has been getting quite a bit of press and because I’m studying contemporary art history I like to pretend that I have a totally legitimate professional reason to take weekends in New York when it suits me. Mostly, though, I feel so so lucky that I have such a great geographical situation. Being able to steal away to see some of the most exciting art going on anywhere is an amazing blessing.
After waiting in a long, long line at the entrance of the Gugie and paying the (in my humble opinion) slightly excessive entrance fee, I walked into the main room of the Guggenheim. I had never been to that part of the Guggenheim (the first time I went, in the spring, they were constructing this very show and the rotunda was closed off). Usually, or so I’m told, it’s like walking into an enormous light-filled corkscrew. Turrell transformed it into a brightly colorful, soothing, undulating space that was absolutely jam-packed with people, especially on its closing weekend. The ceiling was an installation with a series of concentric ovals with LED lights installed in them. It’s hard to explain in words and we weren’t allowed to take photos, but there’s a nice video up on the website here.
One of my favorite things about the piece was watching people react to it. There was padding in the middle of the floor so people could lie down and look at it without craning their necks. I waited around until a spot opened up and squeezed in where I could, snuggling up to a couple anonymous fellow art lovers. This aspect of the show was just wonderful. There’s some gleeful delight in watching New Yorkers break their own rules, but I guess if there’s any institution that takes priority over unwritten New York Norms such as “don’t lie on the ground” and “don’t cuddle with strangers”, it’s the hottest new installation on Museum Mile. I happened to be on the ground next to a few middle-aged men who were chatting with each other. The man whose elbow was grazing my head said calmly, “I’ve been here for four hours. It gets harder and harder to leave.” I wonder if he ever made it out of there.
The big piece itself, Aten Reign, was just incredible. It was at once suspenseful and soothing. It was like looking into the eye of a reptilian deity. It was like the stained glass window of the Jetsons’ cathedral. It was the God the Father to to Morton Feldman’s Holy Ghost and Mark Rothko’s Jesus Christ. It was sort of a synthetic version of what would happen if the aurora borealis had a baby with one hundred sunsets. It’s hard for me to describe it without invoking some kind of celestial metaphor, but I think that’s hard to resist with any piece using light as a medium. There’s just something divine, something sublime, something epic about it.