A Light in the Darkness: Art as Experience

Light feels like a luxury at this time of year. Nights are long, days are short and often grey. While some take this as an invitation to stock up on candles, others are not so lucky and spend their days under fluorescent tubes.

Artists have always known about, and played with, the importance of light. I’m typing this on a particularly grey day and find myself thinking of one of my favourite works of art. I normally prefer figurative art, abstract works tend to get on my nerves, but I’ve made an exception for this one.

James Turrell’s Wedgework III is not so much a work of art, it is an experience. It’s part of the collection of Museum De Pont, a Dutch museum that specializes in contemporary art. The building alone is worth a visit: giant sculptures and paintings decorate what was once a textile factory. While its collection attracts the very worst kind of pseudo-intellectual snobs I urge you to pay this place a visit if you’re in the area. You can always ignore the people – hell, as Sartre rightly pointed out, is other people – and Turrell’s work will help you to do so.

Don’t bother looking for photos of Wedgework III. They do exist but they’re never able to capture what the work is really like. Allow me to take you inside – yes, inside, for this is a work of art you can only walk into, not around.

Wedgework III starts with a narrow s-shaped corridor that gradually gets darker until you need to feel  your way along the walls to avoid banging into them. They’re covered with soft carpet-like fabric and lead you around a final corner. Suddenly you find yourself inside a large room, though it’s hard to estimate how large, as it’s so dark so can’t even see the floor, or the walls, or the ceiling.

As you stand in the darkness you notice the room isn’t entirely dark. Violet and blue light surrounds you and gradually reveals walls and a floor as your eyes get used to it. You discover a small bench and sit down. This does not solve the enigma. Due to some clever trickery it remains impossible to guess how large the room really is, what its shape is, and whether it even is a room in the normal sense of the word.

The light appears to change but you’re unable to tell how. As you sit on the bench and enjoy the view – it’s not unlike the kind of light you might witness just before sunrise – other people will come in. Most of them will stumble and move insecurely, for they are as blind as you were when they came in. If you sit still they won’t notice you until they trip over your legs.

Once I was joined by a visitor who had no trouble negotiating the dark. He was carrying a white stick.

At some point you decide it’s time to go. Finding your way back through the corridor is easy now. People going the other way may bump into you and ask what they’re about to see. Don’t spoil the surprise for them. As you step back into the main room the light hurts your eyes. Greeted by Thomas Schütte’s Große Geister you feel your way back towards reality. But it will never be quite the same again.

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