The James Turrell exhibit is wrapping up at the Guggenheim this month and everyone is talking about the Aten Reign installation. You know, the one where he transformed the entire rotunda into a mesmerizing light display which is bringing hipsters, foreign tourists and old New Yorkers alike to their knees trying to find the best vantage point from the museum floor. And it is pretty astonishing.
But it was not the highlight of my visit.
Not by a long shot.
After waiting in line for 45 minutes to get into the small room for the Iltar installation (this after I’ve already entered the museum, mind you), I took one look at the wall and sincerely thought, “I just stood in line for 45 minutes to see a GRAY RECTANGLE PAINTED ON A WALL?!”
Turns out, this reaction fell in line with exactly what Turrell was trying to accomplish with this piece. After staring at the gray rectangle painted on a wall for a few more minutes, at various distances and angles, I overheard the museum usher explaining the installation to a patron. Inching closer, I overheard, to my shock and embarrassment, that what appeared to be a gray rectangle painted on a wall was in fact, a RECTANGULAR HOLE CUT OUT OF A WALL. Beyond the hole was an entire empty room, nearly the size of the one I was currently standing in.
The room was dimly lit, precisely so that your eyes could never adjust enough to the dark to be able to make out the space through the hole. I squinted my eyes and looked back at the gray rectangle. It was still a gray rectangle. Despite now knowing that it was a hole, understanding that it was a hole, even believing with my entire being that it was a hole, I could only see a gray rectangle. This is the moment when my mind became blown.
Knowing that there was a conflict of interests between what I saw and what I knew to be true reminded me that our eyes don’t always tell the truth, and that sometimes you can see one thing and still believe another. This understanding is at once challenging, difficult to accept and extremely liberating.
I stood in the room for a good ten minutes trying to reconcile what I saw with what I now knew to be true. At one point, a careless tourist entered the room with his cell phone light pointing at the rectangle and for one fleeting moment, I saw the depth beyond the wall. The usher quickly scolded at him to turn it off, and he did, but I had seen it. I thought for sure that the installation was ruined for me then, but guess what? Even having seen the thing that I couldn’t see before did not make it any easier for me to see it again. And once again, I was left with the uncomfortable and exhilarating sensation of seeing one thing, while still believing another.
It was worth the 45 minute wait.