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Eyes wide open: A peek inside James Turrell's Perceptual Cell

ArtistsArts and CultureScienceLos Angeles County Museum of ArtShigeru BanSeptember 11, 2001 AttacksStanley Kubrick

I imagine that I know what it’s like to be abducted by aliens.

Or to leap out of a speeding jet while tripping on acid.

With only two weeks left before the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's James Turrell retrospective closes, I squeaked into the artist’s much talked about Perceptual Cell, “Light Reignfall,” last weekend. 

The retrospective is open to anyone who makes a reservation, but the Perceptual Cell is a separate $45 ticket for a 12-minute psychedelic experience that only one person can experience at a time, every 20 minutes. It’s been sold out since summer 2013.

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For those who can't catch "Light Reignfall," a glimpse of my tour: Inside the cell, a computerized program of saturated light that Turrell engineered was to deliver a kaleidoscopic burst of light patterns. But prior, the experience felt a little like Woody Allen’s 1973 sci-fi spoof, “Sleeper:” the iron lung-like, spacecraft-looking cell standing about 15 feet in diameter, alone in a corner; the congenial women dressed in white lab coats sitting cross-legged at the front of the line; the medical waiver that had to be signed along with emergency contact info, should anything go wrong; even the white, vinyl electronic bed that slides visitors in and out of the cell, not unlike an MRI machine.

“Hard or soft?” one woman asked me when I turned in my paperwork. “You can choose.”

“Soft” is a series of slow-morphing color schemes, she explained, similar to some of Turrell’s works in the retrospective. I chose “hard,” a more intense program featuring fast, strobe-like flashes.

I stripped off my shoes and jewelry and left my belongings in a container outside the cell, then laid down on the slim bed, barely wider than my body. My head was nestled into a cushy ring that reminded me of a massage table. The attendant gave me headphones, through which a series of electronic beats, synced to the light, would play; the soundtrack, she said, would lull my brain waves into an alpha, meditative state.

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With a sudden, loud whoosh the bed slid backward into the blindingly white cell, as the waving attendant’s slim frame receded. I gripped the panic button she’d slipped onto my wrist.

Inside: silence  -- a distinct, echo-y silence, if that makes sense. The bed seemed to be suspended in midair, with a substantial drop below.

The music started up, soft and intermittent at first, then gradually louder and faster. A cool wash of blue drowned the interior of the capsule.

Soon it was like being inside a kaleidoscope, with quickly morphing colors, sharp flashes and geometric patterns bleeding into one another all around. There was no retreat, nowhere to focus the eyes to retreat from the light. I shut my eyes for a second, seeking a moment’s escape, but the aggressive light patterns bled through.

So I succumbed to it. I opened my eyes wide and let my eyeballs relax. It felt like I was melting into the multicolored abyss. It was both energizing and relaxing, terrifying and beautiful.

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I felt as though I were floating. Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” came to mind, as did "Pink Floyd The Wall”; this was followed, oddly, by shards of romantic memories, long-ago forgotten, over a lost adolescent love; followed by a reminder to pick up kitty litter; followed by what a cool experience this was; followed by all the work awaiting me upon my return home.

Followed by the fact that Turrell, himself, had warned me, when I interviewed him earlier in the week, that this would happen.

“It’s not exactly calming, although the effect can be after you’ve been in there a while,” he said. “Your mind races; it takes a while before the mind can settle down and get out of its hurried thought.”

I was reminded of what Turrell’s contemporary, the artist Helen Pashgian, had said that week when I spoke with her about her solo exhibition opening at LACMA on March 30.

“James may be the great genius of our time,” she said.

Suddenly, the music faded and the lights softened and slowed. Then that whoosh again -- and a sliver of harsh, almost metallic light came into view as the bed slid forward and the chipper attendant came into view.

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For the rest of the afternoon, I felt oddly energized, restored. Which was also something Turrell had spoke of.

“The work that you’ll see in there is about cleansing the mind. It does do that,” he said. “It’s a little bit invasive, but I’m sure you can handle it.”

He was right. I’d go again, if I could.

“James Turrell: A Retrospective” is not sold out. It closes April 6.

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ArtistsArts and CultureScienceLos Angeles County Museum of ArtShigeru BanSeptember 11, 2001 AttacksStanley Kubrick
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