Lux Tenebris: James Turrell's 'Dark Matter'

Evan Moffitt


I blink once, then twice. Nothing coalesces in nothingness. Darkness focuses itself into luminosity, the pale pink St. Elmo’s fire of my inner eye. Is there really a light pulsating in the abyss? I wonder. Or am I going mad?

James Turrell. Afrum (White), 1967. Light projection.

I am in James Turrell’s Dark Matter. The guard who led me here by the beam of her flashlight claims not to know what lies at the end of this labyrinth of black carpet and black walls. She leaves me in a small armchair, pondering an immense void of imperceptible depth. As her light bobs back along the hallway like a lit buoy, vanishing in dense fog, I realize that whatever happens to me in the next ten minutes can never escape this chamber. The shroud of total darkness obscures not just my vision but also my points of reference. I am—for the first time in a long time—utterly alone.

I prepare myself for meditative blankness, a reprieve from the chaos of daily life. My cellphone is off, my keys barely digging into my pant leg. Muffled sounds from the adjacent galleries seem impossibly distant…that world I feel suddenly so relieved to have left. I begin to think of other things: stress at work, my dinner, what I’ll do next weekend to relax. My skin tingles with the conspicuous absence of stimuli. The bodies of my thoughts populate the empty room, closing in on me until my loneliness wears away to claustrophobia.

And then, after what feels like a full ten minutes, a soft incandescence appears on the horizon. That is, where the horizon line should be, were one visible. I can feel the rays of its faint but persistent warmth. Is this just white noise, like the crackles and snaps of neon dancing across my pupils, just a hallucinated bit of light filling the void in dizzy desperation? Is this really real?

James Turrell. Raemar Pink White, 1967. Shallow space.

The pink ebbs. It is primeval, like the birth of the world: lux tenebris. I wave my fingers before my eyes, and watch their faint shadows dance across the light. Unconvinced, I fall to my knees, and clutching the low wall before me, crouch until the glow sets behind its barrier like a midnight sun. Just then, it’s confirmed: there is a light, out there, in the distance. I wonder what the guard would think if she walked in on me now, clutching the carpet.

It must have been five more minutes before I finally saw her white light whisper around the corner, heard her soft plodding footsteps. I emerged from my isolation to greet the (relative) brilliance of the James Turrell retrospective in LACMA’s Resnick Pavilion. It was the feeling of being born again, led out of infinite darkness by a warm and comforting light. Bathed in sunlight, I felt a renewed sensitivity to the depths of the universe.

James Turrell: A Retrospective is on view at LACMA until April 6th.