James Turrell’s “Pleiades”

James Turrell’s “Pleiades”

I saw this at the Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh in 1999. It fascinates me as (almost) an example of what Paul Churchland calls “The Direct Introspection of Brain States”:

Pleiades, 1983
Permanent Installation
Drywall, paint, incandescent light
500 Sampsonia Way, 2nd floor
“You approach the gallery through an inclined corridor so dark that you are virtually without sight. At the top of the ramp, you sit in a chair and face blackness. After your eyes adjust, an amorphous sphere of grey-white, or perhaps red, begins to appear, more a presence than an object. As you look harder, the form becomes smaller. You turn away for a moment and back again. It grows and glimmers. But the source of light itself is constant and still.”

“Pleiades, a work of darkness, utilizes the difference in function between the two types of photoreceptive cells, that is, cones and rods. The cones are suitable for discerning colors at light places. crowding toward the center of the retina. The rods serve to make out delicate shades in dark places, mostly gathering near the periphery of the retina. In the darkness designed by Turrell, the viewer experiences the difference between the two kinds of cells during the period of time when the eyes of adaptation to darkness takes place.”

“Pleiades is a work which exemplifies the Tao of Turrell. The viewer encounters Pleiades by walking up a gentle incline for about six meters, into total darkness. Whether one is in a tiny room or a vast space is impossible to tell except by guessing at echoes. As a note outside the work explains, after about fifteen minutes the visitor’s eyes adjust to the darkness. These fifteen minutes are functionally equivalent to insight meditation: as she watches the process of perception itself, the visitor becomes acutely, directly aware of visual noise that she didn’t even know was there. After-images dance in the black space, arising and disappearing. Slowly, a dim, red shape begins to appear, at first indistinguishable from the perceptual ‘interference.’ The faintly glowing light is barely perceptible at first, amid the noise, but gradually the noise dies down. After a half hour or so, there is only the red light, resting silently in a field of blackness: the inner light embodied. Is Pleiades “about” the science of perception, or the art of meditation? Both. Pleiades, Space that Sees, and similar works are attention practices. We shift from engaging our conceptual, symbolic minds to noticing the apparatus of Mind itself.”

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