“The more we learn about the world, the deeper our learning, the more conscious, specific, and articulate will be our knowledge of what we do not know, our knowledge of our ignorance. For this, indeed, is the main source of our ignorance – the fact that our knowledge can only be finite, while our ignorance must necessarily be infinite.” (Karl Popper)
The unknown is always vaster than the known – unlike what is illuminated, darkness is boundless. On the small art-studded island of Naoshima in Japan’s Setouchi Inland Sea is a profoundly simple work by Japanese architect Tadao Ando and Californian light artist James Turrell. Situated in an old temple, the commission is part of the Fukutake Foundation’s Art House Project series, where artist restorations of historic sites are scattered throughout the island’s old residential Honmura district.
The name of the work, Minamidera: The Back Side of the Moon, reminds us that despite being unseen, the moon’s dark side still exists – and while we talk about lunar waxing and wanning we know we are only witnessing the effects of shadow play. Visitors enter a pitch-black room where they wait until they gradually detect a faint light that has always been there but only becomes perceptible after ten to fifteen minutes of retina expansion. The initial darkness feels dense and heavy on the body and the experience is situated somewhere between the anxiety of not understanding the surroundings and the pleasure of anonymous immersion in infinite space. The element of time is crucial – as with the dusk and dawn viewings at Turrell’s Sky Spaces (one of them situated nearby in the Tadao Ando museum Chichu), we must wait patiently in silence before we can see. In keeping with a non-dualistic view of the world, participants are made sensitive to the ways in which light and dark (known and unknown) exist only through each other.
Thinking back on a John Cage performance he attended as a fresh-faced freshman, Turrell said “I didn’t know what the hell was going on, but I knew it was important”. Comparisons between Cage’s music and the body of work Turrell went on to create can be useful in thinking about the artist’s practice: while the composer’s noise incorporated silence, Turrell’s light includes darkness; and while Cage is concerned with in his listeners listening to themselves listening, Turrell hones in on the seer seeing her or himself seeing. Furthermore, while Turrell’s work is largely lost in photo and video reproductions, Cage doesn’t translate well to recording: they both offer live, experiential environments which cease to exist without the listener/seer: the imaginative, cognitive and perceptual space in the minds of their audiences is what assembles the reality of the works. In Turrell’s words, “my work is not about my seeing, it is about your seeing. There is no one between you and your experience. It is non-vicarious art.”
Cage wrote what he considered to be his best composition, 4’33” (a work that was included in the concert the young Turrell attended) after sitting in a noise-proof anechoic chamber and observing the cacophonous sounds of his own body. It was then that he realised there is no such thing as silence, and while 4’33” is commonly perceived to be a four minutes and thirty-three second silent composition, it actually consists of the perpetual sounds of the surrounding environment, which the audience is made sensitive to as the performer remains as still and soundless as possible. It exists on the principle that sensory deprivation amounts to sensory enhancement.
After Cage found there cannot be silence because there are always the sounds within, Turrell went on to teach us there is no such thing as darkness once we locate our inner light – and this is less New Ageist than it sounds. The artist was experimenting with experiences of sensory restriction resulting in heightened sensitivity from very early in his career. With Robert Irwin – an older artist identified with the Californian Light & Space movement of the 1960s – and the perceptual scientist Edward Wortz, Turrell set up an anechoic space at UCLA and conducted a series of experiments on volunteers, as part of the Los Angeles County Museum’s Art & Technology (A&T) 1967-1971 program.
The aim was to focus the participants’ attention on their sense awareness, creating a setting for them to perceive themselves perceiving. In the A&T report Turrell wrote that “The viewers must assume the responsibility, they get into the experience, and they make the art – they are the actuality.” The conceptual groundwork for the project was closely tied in with the practice of meditation and teachings of Zen, which Wortz was at the time heavily focused on and Turrell was also engaged with. They wanted to explore the notion of time as illusionary, quoting from William Blake: “If the doors of perception were cleansed, every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite.”
Turrell’s work – which he has referred to as being like ‘visual koans’ – has found unique resonance in Japan, a country where the idea that presence will always grow from its interaction with absence, has developed in artistic traditions for centuries. In examining the Chinese landscape painting that would come to also take root in Japan, François Jullien writes (in The Great Image Has No Form), “Any presence that is no longer haunted by its absence gets bogged down, entrenched in itself and, thus isolated, becomes sterile.” Seen and unseen, known and unknown, shadow and light, day and night, emerging and submerging, silence and sound, being and not being: all should dissolve into each other.