Light as phenomenon



Since the beginning of time, light, particularly natural light, has been used to demonstrate the passing of time, celestial events and humanity’s connection with the earth and the solar system.


Some the earliest buildings and structures in human history are devoted to harnessing natural light for these purposes, and architectural examples of these practices can be found all over the world.


One of the earliest such structures is the Newgrange Burial Chamber in County Meath, Ireland. Newgrange, which predates the Egyptian pyramids by almost 400 years, was built around 3,200BCE and utilises an opening in the building to bring light into the structure upon the dawning of the summer solstice.


The artist featured in this section, James Turrell, has built structures based on prehistoric monuments, such as Newgrange and Stonehenge by using related techniques, such as architectural apertures (Krupp, 2013).


Turrell’s interest in prehistoric monuments and their celestial arrangements also extends to the pyramidal structures of the Mayans, Egyptians and Mesopotamians, the Karnak Temple at Luxor, the Pantheon in Rome and the stupas of South and Southeast Asia. His interest in the celestial and temporal phenomena of light can be seen as invoking the ‘mythic histories’ of such places.



When discussing a piece of artwork or structure as a ‘phenomenon’ and the consideration of ‘phenomenology’ it is important to specify what is meant by these descriptions.


Merriam-Webster Dictionary offers the following definitions for phenomenon:


  1. (plural) Phenomena: an observable fact or event

  2. (plural) Phenomena:

    1. An object or aspect known through the senses rather than by thought or intuition

    2. A temporal or spatiotemporal object of sensory experience as distinguished from a noumenon

    3. A fact or event of scientific interest susceptible to scientific description and explanation

  3. A rare or significant fact or event


When considering the usage of the word phenomena, or phenomenon, in relation to the work of James Turrell, it could actually be said that all of these definitions relate. His works are observable, can be known through the senses, are most definitely sensory experiences, have scientific explanations and, particularly when dealing with celestial events, can be rare.


Merriam-Webster Dictionary then offers the following definitions for phenomenology:


  1. The study of the development of human consciousness and self-awareness as a preface to or a part of philosophy


    1. A philosophical movement that describes the formal structure of the objects of awareness and of awareness itself in abstraction from any claims concerning existence

    2. The typological classification of a class of phenomena

    3. An analysis produced by phenomenological investigation


With these descriptions of phenomenology, it is slightly easier to denote what is meant when talking about the work of James Turrell, that being the philosophical movement describing formal structure referred to in point 2a.


When Turrell was studying Mathematics, Experimental Psychology, Art and Art History at Pomona College in the 1960s, the was introduced to Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s discourse on phenomenology (De Lima Greene, 2013). Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961), a French philosopher, held the idea that the truth of vision cannot be held “in the ordinary run of the living, because it is then hidden under its own acquisitions”, an idea which is supported by the work of James Turrell (Trotman, 2013).


James Turrell

Further linking the work of American artist James Turrell (b.1943) to the idea of phenomena, is the idea of perception over object. In stark contrast to Dan Flavin, Turrell uses perception as his object and true medium (Govan & Kim, 2013, Trotman, 2013).


Turrell’s work, from his projection pieces and corridors to his Skyspaces and the monolithic Roden Crater, are investigating light and human perception. By isolating and shaping light and space through human perception, Turrell promotes “receptivity to a more spiritual, universal nature” (Saad-Cook, 1988, Govan & Kim, 2013).


Turrell’s work questions the nature of light as a phenomena, and not as an object or function. Describing light as a powerful “substance”, he alludes to a primal connection to light which he wants the viewer to experience through an expansion of consciousness (Sinnreich, 2009, Trotman, 2013).


He states:


“I use no object as such because I don’t want to have light lighting things. I want to make a thing-ness of light. Therefore, there is no object because perception of light is the objective – perception is the object” (Govan & Kim, 2013)


There is some debate, however, as to whether Turrell’s focus on perception can be classed with his contemporaries as a ‘Minimalist’ artist. This may seem slightly trivial as to which ‘ism’ Turrell falls under, however, it can be used as a case in point in contrasting and conflicting his use of light with that of Dan Flavin.


Claire Bishop, author of ‘Installation Art: A Critical History’ (2005) states that, the West Coast (in which Turrell is grouped as an artist), responded to Minimalism less on critical debates around objecthood, and more on the viewer’s sensory experience. Turrell, specifically, can definitely, as evidenced, be classed as an artist who focuses more on sensory experience than on objecthood.


Contrastingly, Alison de Lima Greene (in Govan & Kim, 2013) refers to Barbara Rose, the author of ‘ABC Art’ (1965), a critical essay on the roots of minimalism. She states that if Rose’s definition of Minimalism is accepted (that being the tension between the “void” and the “readymade”) then the difference in the use of light by Turrell and Flavin illustrates Turrell’s departure from Minimalism, with particular regard to the work of Dan Flavin.

Turrell not only uses manufactured light in his aim to relate the human viewer to a more spiritual, universal consciousness, but also employs natural light and celestial events as suggested by his interest in prehistoric monuments such as Newgrange and Stonehenge.


His ‘Skyspaces’, which are essentially celestial observatories, are designed to reveal the mystery of light and can be compared to, in purpose and in structure, to the Pantheon in Rome and the Mahayana Buddhist temple of Borobudur in Central Java, Indonesia (Giménez, 2013, Govan & Kim, 2013).


Roden Crater, on which Turrell has been working since the 1970s, is a megastructure of multiple Skyspaces and chambers, designed according to the cosmological system, which will permit views of both the winter and summer solstices (Sinnreich, 2009).


The volcanic crater, located in the Painted Desert, near Flagstaff, Arizona, consists of subterranean passage ways and chambers intended to help develop a new understanding of the place of the human consciousness amongst the cosmos (Bantz, 2013).


A ‘new Newgrange’ as it could perhaps be termed, Roden Crater harks back to the ancient architecture of prehistory and antiquity, amalgamizing architecture both secular and sacred to ensure the viewer can experience the power of light amongst an ancient natural landscape (Govan & Kim, 2013, Trotman).


This desire of Turrell’s to understand light as an ephemeral, temporal, phenomena is directly opposing to Flavin’s objectivity of functional light. Turrell in contrast uses light almost as a sense, a feeling, whereas Flavin uses light as a sculptural material, as you might concrete or marble.


Both artists, their practices and their individual ethos raise interesting and important questions about the objectivity of light, and its place in the modern world. They present conflicting ideologies, but that is not to say either one should be held in higher regard than the other.