James Turrell’s “Aten Reign” at the Guggenheim

I’m lying supine on the cool floor of the Guggenheim’s rotunda, bathed in a well of shifting light. James Turrell has completely transformed the iconic, spiraling structure with his site-specific installation, “Aten Reign,” a soaring work of art that left me utterly breathless.

James Turrell Aten Reign art the WILD magazine

An artist who uses light as his medium of choice, Turrell is interested in its illusory effects, playing with space and geometry in ways that compel viewers to stare at and contemplate elements that are part of our everyday experience. For “Aten Reign,” Turrell constructed a tower of evenly spaced, concentric rings that shrink in size as they reach towards the ocular skylight, creating an inverse funnel that fills the entirety of the central atrium. The rotunda’s winding hallways, usually open to the main area, are sealed, bounding the viewing to the ground floor. LED fixtures programmed to cycle through a series of colors nestle unseen within the rings; the electrical light mixes with natural light streaming through the skylight, shining upwards to drown the space in slowly-changing swatches of color. Turrell is creating dialogue between “Aten Reign” and Frank Lloyd Wright’s helical architectural masterpiece, and the conversation is phenomenal.

To further engage with “Aten Reign,” visitors are allowed to lie down at the very center of the rotunda. I hesitate to move from sitting on a bench to join the thirty or so people on the ground, anticipating feeling exposed and slightly vulnerable in reclining in such a public place full of strangers. “Aten Reign,” however, demands your full attention, and the best way to escape the distraction of the large crowd is to place yourself directly in the middle of it and gaze upwards so the scope of your vision is mainly consumed by the beaming cone above. I cautiously sidle over to the center, lie down between two strangers and surrender myself to the experience.

James Turrell Aten Reign art the WILD magazine

Looking up, the three-dimensionality of the space seems to disappear, with the conical structure flattening to create an elliptical bullseye. But depth returns as I shift my focus away from the bright, egg-like center and scan the plane. The lines pull forward and backward: I see the ellipses soar and converge towards the ceiling — as they physically do — then sometimes they all seem to move towards and point at me as if I could reach out and touch the smallest one, and at times each ring seems to protrude in a direction opposite to its surrounding ring, creating varying levels of depth. At the same time, color glides into color, as the installation cycles through a seemingly endless spectrum of hues, sometimes with almost imperceptible transitions. “Aten Reign” shifts from a gentle white to lavender to a shocking magenta to persian blue to jade to charcoal, with the shade of each ring getting lighter closer to the nucleus. The whole piece breathes to the rhythm of the color sequence. It pulsates and ripples; darkens and lightens. Each ellipse seems to concretely surround its inner rings while simultaneously engulfing them. The smallest ellipse disappears, its brightness fading as it blends into its neighbor, which in turn blends into its neighbor, and suddenly all the lines disappear to form one ovoid, floating plane. But then I blink, and I see the varying shades and definite lines once more.

James Turrell Aten Reign art the WILD magazine

“If you’ve been lying on the ground for more than five minutes,” the guard calls out, “please move on so there is space for others.” Five minutes?! “Aten Reign” begs your attention for at least 30. I glance at the time and realize I’ve been on the ground for a little over two hours.

Draping visitors in light in such a graceful space, “Aten Reign” brings one into a mood of quiet meditation. Although large and imposing, it is a gentle piece that silently plays with your perception of space in a hypnotic, almost hallucinogenic sense. The installation is much more about feeling and the experience of observing light and space interact rather than thinking in that moment about its meaning as a work of art — I didn’t feel the time pass because I didn’t need to think about the significance of what I was seeing until after I left.

Although I’ve described my experience with “Aten Reign,” it is impossible to translate Turrell’s visuals into words. Turrell himself describes his art as “non-vicarious” — no one should stand between the viewer and his or her experience; it has to be witnessed in person. So lie beneath “Aten Reign,” and sink into its tranquilizing effect first-hand.

James Turrell Aten Reign art the WILD magazine

James Turrell Aten Reign art the WILD magazine

James Turrell Aten Reign art the WILD magazine

James Turrell Aten Reign art the WILD magazine

James Turrell Aten Reign art the WILD magazine

Photos by Claire Voon

text by: Claire Voon










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