Woman and man looking up at Stardust Particle - Phoebe Powell
Stardust particle, 2014, Olafur Eliasson, installation view, ACMI. Photo by Phoebe Powell.
Stories & Ideas

Mon 18 Jul 2022

Olafur Eliasson and James Turrell: how perception can shift perspective

Art Immersive technologies Light: Works from Tate's Collection
Alex Walker - Stories & Ideas

Alex Walker

Visual artist and writer

By altering our senses, artworks like Raemar, Blue and Stardust particle have the ability to change the world around them.

Light transcends language [1] – it is all encompassing, beyond word or gesture, universal. It has the capacity to transform a space entirely. American artist James Turrell bathes environments in coloured light, encouraging viewers of his work to draw awareness to their own perception, to observe themselves in the very act of looking itself. Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson uses light and the human act of perceiving as an opportunity to connect; to share this very personal experience of looking, and embodying, with someone beside you. He believes that which we encounter together is what connects us. Like these two artists’ practice and ethos, light and space are harmonious, working in concert to hide and reveal as they activate sensory perception within each viewer’s body and mind.

Raemar, Blue (1969), one of Turrell’s most recognisable and significant ‘Shallow Space Constructions’, uses light, space and architecture to create an “immersive spatial environment”. Physically and psychologically enthralling, it floods the room in which it is housed with blue light, enveloping its viewers in a deep cobalt hue and distorting spatial perception. Turrell is a Quaker – a religion which believes “that everyone has a light in them, and we come together to find that light in us again and again” [2]. This sentiment is reflected in the encounters he creates for audiences. His works intend to produce a state of self-reflection and contemplation, encouraging viewers to become aware of the process of looking and the limits of perception [3].

Taking advantage of our instinctual mental practice of giving form to what we see, Turrell’s work uses visible light to reveal what might otherwise be invisible [4], allowing vivid colour to elicit feelings, ideas and memories which are unique to each individual; it extends the traditional Modernist perspective of experiencing art as a discrete encounter with the work. With Raemar, Blue, the line between body and art becomes increasingly blurred; overwhelmed by sublime colour, beauty and abstraction, you carry this work with you in the form of a red afterglow upon leaving its space.

Woman and man in James Turrell's Raemar, Blue room

Raemar, Blue, 1969, James Turrell, installation view, ACMI. Photo by Phoebe Powell.

Having experienced several of Turrell’s Shallow Space Constructions, I was intrigued how despite the similar mode of presentation, each different colour and/or environment elicited a unique response within not only myself, but my fellow visitors. For me, Raemar, Blue was a pensive reprieve to digest the sensorial delights in Light: Works from Tate’s Collection at ACMI, while another viewer found the enveloping blue environment “impending and oppressive”. Colour theory suggests blue is a non-threatening colour yet not in this person’s mind – how personal our interpretations of this work can be, finding reflections of the inner self, using “light to to decipher the visual cues of the world” [5].

How are these works connected?

Explore this constellation

Where Turrell’s work presents a meditative invitation on self-reflection, Olafur Eliasson’s Stardust particle (2014) is immediately active, engaging and activating the surrounding space and we the viewer within it. A crystalline object hangs and rotates as a spotlight shines on it. Fragmented reflections glide across gallery walls, while an echo of the revolving structure seems to float between three dimensions and two on the wall behind it. You can connect directly with the affectual response – no time is wasted on ‘figuring it out’. Instead, the work encourages you to look, laugh and discover; finding childlike joy and awe observing the different elements of the work in your own time, catching the eye or reflection of a fellow visitor as you follow shapes around the room, until the light flashes and your focus is shifted once again.

As daily work is increasingly spent in front of computer screens, and physical activities are displaced by digital programmes, so there is a greater push for bodily experiences of the kind provided by immersive installations [6]. Unlike most traditional notions of art and our engagement with it, artists such as James Turrell and Olafur Eliasson seek to shift the focus from the art object and extend the act of looking beyond the physical world to a more psychologically charged and immaterial space [7].

Woman looking up at Stardust Particle, Olafur Eliasson - Phoebe Powell

Stardust particle, 2014, Olafur Eliasson, installation view, ACMI. Photo by Phoebe Powell.

Eliasson believes “where you become aware of the processes of perception, aware of your body as it made sense of the environment… this increased self-reflection could in turn lead to a more reflective attitude towards the world outside the artwork” [8]. And as social life is more and more mediated through technology, the opportunity to come together in a space to enjoy an unusual experience with other people becomes rarer and more appealing [9]. Eliasson aspires to these types of encounters as a means for social and environmental change: “once you have tools for examining your surroundings, you are also more likely to work to change your surroundings. I think it’s crucial for people to see themselves as being participants in the world – producers rather than simply passive consumers” [10]; creating a framework for wider socio-political critique and encouraging a perspective that we as both viewers of art and citizens of the world could learn from.

These works show how perception can shift perspective, how even the smallest gesture and encounter can elicit feelings and create experiences to carry with you well past the museum walls and out into the world. The duality between the finding the light within in Raemar, Blue, and Stardust particle’s encouragement to share it with those around you, is a powerful combination to consider change, beginning with one fleeting moment.

Alex Walker is a visual artist and writer from Naarm/Melbourne working with photography, projection, installation and unfixed images. Follow her on Instagram

Read more about Raemar, Blue and Stardust particle

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  1. Choppara, Sriya, The Evolution of Light in Art, 2021.
  2. James Turrell interview on 'The light inside people,' Designboom, 2018.
  3. Olafur Eliasson: In Real Life exh. cat., Tate Modern, 2019.
  4. Robert Irwin/James Turrell: Villa Panza exh. cat., Villa Panza, 2014.
  5. Robert Irwin/James Turrell: Villa Panza exh. cat., Villa Panza, 2014.
  6. Olafur Eliasson: In Real Life exh. cat., Tate Modern, 2019.
  7. Amore, Melissa Bianca ‘The Mind as Architecture’ in Sitelines: Natasha Johns-Messenger, Heide MoMA, 2016.
  8. Olafur Eliasson: In Real Life exh. cat., Tate Modern, 2019.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.