Supreme Suffusion

Famed artist James Turrell unveils two new light-based installations at Crystals

Las Vegas is a city of artificial light and spatial disorientation. So it makes sense for an artist who creates beguilingly radiant, deeply immersive installations to unveil a work that reflects the Strip?s disconnected, disconnecting allure. That the work in question exists on the fourth floor of a French boutique inside Crystals at CityCenter enhances the intrigue.

James Turrell, 70, was once an art-world rebel. His spirituality put him at odds with secular New York critics. That changed this summer with three concurrent Turrell retrospectives at major museums in New York, L.A. and Houston. (It is said Turrell coordinated the exhibits to align with summer solstice, when there are longer periods of daylight.) Write-ups in outlets such as The New York Times, The New Yorker and Time are piling up. The articles put Las Vegas on the cultural map with two recently debuted Turrell projects—an untitled installation at Crystals tram station (Platform 1) and an immersive environment, ?Akhob,? in Louis Vuitton. The former encourages you to look at others; the latter gives you no choice but to peer into the abyss of self.

Who is Turrell, you ask? He is a wizard of the manufactured sublime. He is a shaman with a long list of commercial clients. A Quaker and 1984 MacArthur Fellow, he insists on honest, direct transcendence through the art of indirection—dim tunnels, lights, architectural modifications. A Californian, he doesn?t bask in but instead harnesses the sun and clouds, as he does with his ?skyspaces?—lovely apertures in roofs framing the heavens, making the celestial seem tangible. An artist who employs spectacle, he is the Vegas Vic of light-saturated perception, and of the isolated, illuminated human soul. He also wears a cowboy hat unironically.

In a bid to extend CityCenter?s still-active art program, MGM Resorts CEO Jim Murren insisted on including the artist in the massive urban complex lodged in the heart of Las Vegas Boulevard. (Murren has an art-history degree from Trinity College and is a collector of Turrell?s work.) Because the untitled Crystals piece is a public artwork—one that plays well against the larger, sharp-angled edifice of a Daniel Libeskind-designed mall—it is arguably less affecting than the immersive environments for which the artist is known. But the piece is still compelling.

Six weeks ago, Turrell?s installation was permanently mounted at the Crystals tram station. Descending the escalator, you will notice an 8-foot-by-4-foot monitor. It contains a lozenge-shaped bull?s eye that throbs in various colors, in measured gradations. The installation also involves four architectural niches, or shallow-space constructions, with illuminated frames. Approach them and you look out over Crystals for a stunning futuristic view. They provide a flattering vantage from which to take in the sight of an upscale shopping venue on the Strip.

There?s also a double-paned and dotted glass-window structure as you exit the tram. The entire installation is ambiently lit and, thanks to a computer program, changes color, moving from saturated blue to pink to purple to white. The station, especially at night, oozes slick, circuit-humming, techno-elegant, Stanley Kubrickian beauty. You can?t help but look around at the mall, at shoppers, absorbing everything.

Viewing it on a tram jaunt is part of CityCenter?s public-art experience. I watched a young couple from out of town, brochure in the woman?s hand, stop and view the new installation at Crystals station. They seemed impressed. But Turrell?s tram art feels like mild preparation, a subtle appetizer, before the sensory feast of ?Akhob.?

The relationship between Vuitton and Turrell can be traced back to the artist?s first commissioned light-based sculpture in 2005 for the Champs-Elys?es flagship store in Paris. His Las Vegas installation is the artist?s second major piece for Vuitton.

?Akhob? occupies an entire display floor and is accessed by elevator. The doors open, and you enter a dimly lit room. A young, well-groomed man at a desk greets you. You are told that ?Akhob? means ?pure water? in Egyptian, and that Turrell envisioned viewers stepping into a glass of liquid. Then things begin happening in a very ritualistic, highly formal manner. You sign a waiver acknowledging that—like a certain Wang Chung music video from the ?80s—?Akhob? has been known to cause seizures, that you won?t hold Vuitton responsible, that you have health insurance.

A whiff of danger, mortality. You don?t recall contending with any legal paperwork before plunging yourself into Eli Roth?s Goretorium, where gruesomely costumed, blood-spattered actors came at you with knives, shrieking murder.

You are led to an antechamber. You remove your shoes and place them in a rustic wooden box. You don floppy paper footies. Everything around you looks clean, sumptuous, expensive, made of dark-stained wood.

You walk up stairs into an illuminated environment. There are two rooms, an attendant stationed at the entrance to each. You enter the first room as a lighting program, taking 20 minutes to complete, puts each room through a continuous sequence. Two colors always play against the other. In the first room, the walls might be green, but the colors evolve. You?re in the belly of a well of light, swallowed whole. You are not allowed to touch the walls, denying you a tactile experience.

The disorientation is stirring, emotional. You might even cry.

Part of the dislocation is due to the room?s modifications. There are no right angles; the joints connecting floor and wall are curved. Standing in the space, you feel like you?re floating inside a cumulus of color. Perception is thwarted; you can?t discern where walls begin and end. Physically untethered, spatially unmoored, you don?t know the limits of the area, or if you?re supposed to draw them yourself.

You walk forward a pace or two or three, and step onto the edge of the second room. Here things are more dramatic because of an additional drop-off that you are tempted to take. Before you can, the attendant stands near the edge to let you know where the edge is so that you don?t step off. Like Las Vegas, the environment is controlled, policed, giving the illusion of complete sensory freedom, when in fact every move you make, every gesture you offer, is monitored, keeping you in check. You have pierced the veil of heaven, but your name is not yet on God?s list.

You have no sense of whether the room ends 1,000 feet or 10 feet in front of you. Sure, you can perceive that the floor eventually stops, but just how far is it to the other side? It will remain a mystery. Meanwhile, a cloud of green or pink hovers before you. You look back into the previous space and feel lost, locked inside one of Mark Rothko?s Color Field paintings, all flatness, with no central focus.

Colors change, then stay fixed, then change again. It?s time to leave. Dazed, you seem to coast toward the exit, drifting through dream waters to return to the real world of concrete and steel. Like the ancient Greek mythological figure of Orpheus, you steal a glance back at the illuminated rooms, but there is no Eurydice to banish to the gloam. Only smiling attendants, expressing hope that you enjoyed ?Akhob.?

Turrell takes the concept of the Las Vegas application of light—to dazzle tourists with neon—and transforms it into an epic if minimalist meditation, a sensory-depriving isolation tank, a science-fiction zero-gravity chamber, where we are forced to confront our nearing extinction and the finite beauty of our lives. Instead of using light and color to distract for the purpose of entertainment, Turrell employs them to sharpen our interior concentration, to remind us that we are born into radiance and that we will likely expire into it, too. Shutting out the world and succumbing to pure perception is its own reward. What Turrell offers is a gift, really—the realization that private perception is superior to shared external reality. It is also alienating, sure. After all, grasping the world as a personal perceptual fiction rather than a shared social field is the very definition of an existential crisis. Or psychosis.

Turrell extends a powerful, if somewhat problematic, souvenir. But it is one that, should you get an opportunity to experience it, you will keep inside you long after the tourist trinkets of the Strip are trashed and forgotten. And taken together with his public artwork at Crystals station, you have an opportunity to bask in two major works in Las Vegas by a major artist. Both are gratifying, but one is transcendent.

?Akhob? in Louis Vuitton at Crystals

Permanently displayed, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thu-Mon, 739-8520, free but by appointment.

Take a Turrell pilgrimage this summer

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art exhibits James Turrell: A Retrospective through April. His Dark Space immersives require 30-minute viewings. They are simple—a room, a dim incandescent bulb, total silence—but render you speechless by insulating you from spatial coordinates and light. There is a theme-park dimension to everything, including the separately ticketed experience of a Perceptual Cell called ?Light Reignfall.? Like ?Akhob,? you sign a waiver, but this time the attendants are lab-coated, provide you a panic button and ask you if prefer the ?hard or soft? version. Ask for it hard.

At the new Turrell-designed private gallery, Kayne Corcoran Griffin on LeBrea Avenue in Los Angeles, there is another Perceptual Cell. This two-person light-based immersive is titled ?Meditation Chamber.? Its 18-minute program is ultra-psychedelic, but also haunting, gorgeous and something you?ll never forget.

Turrell?s ?Roden Crater?—Turrell?s astrology-based neo-Stonehenge installation—lies in an extinct volcano near Flagstaff. Not quite yet-open to the public, this project has been under way since the late 1970s. A limited number of fundraising visits are hosted at the crater each year to raise money for construction and operational costs. ? J.K.

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