Perceptual Cell, National Gallery of Australia

11 Jan

It’s my first post for 2015 and I actually don’t know where to begin. I’m trying to put myself back in the Perceptual Cell Bindu Shards, part of the James Turrell exhibition at National Gallery of Australia. It is an experience that almost defies words. But I’m going to try to drag them out.

For over 50 years, James Turrell has been using light to make art that is psychologically perplexing. Each piece isn’t viewed, but experienced. With his pieces, every sense you use to identify something, to make sense of a situation, is challenged.

And the National Gallery of Australia has brought this work to Canberra – celebrating its history – with the centrepiece being Perpetual Cell. I’ve seen the hype and buy tickets for it and the exhibition ($45.88 combined) without even fully appreciating what it is. And even now that I have experienced it, I am still not sure I fully appreciate what it is.

My friend and I have our tickets scanned and walk straight into the first exhibition room, a large foyer. In it stands a white, metal sphere, flanked by men in white labcoats. We’re directed to them, and show them our tickets. We’re told to stay in the main room and we’ll be fetched shortly. When we are, my shoes are removed and my bag taken away, and I sign a waiver that I don’t have any pre-existing conditions like epilepsy or claustrophobia. There’s also a choice of hard or soft – both having strobing lights, but the former is much faster. What the heck – – I choose hard. Once done, I sit – for there’s someone before me, someone still in the ‘cell’, having God knows what done to them.

Then I see the cell open – the technicians pull a handle and drag out a drawer, on which a young man sits up and takes off his large headphones. As he walks down the steep steps, I’m guided up them. If anything happens that’s too confronting, they say, I’m to hold my hand up in front of my eyes – this will make it stop. If it’s really getting too much, there’s a buzzer; I’m handed it and told to keep it safe.

And then I’m lying down on this drawer, the headphones are on, and all sound disappears. I’m pushed, head first, into the cell. The first light is blue, so blue that water is streaming out of my eyes and I’m squinting and wondering if I can really go ahead with this. I settle in, the lights change, and I start to wonder, Is this it?

The lights start flickering and then it becomes almost immersive. While the light feels like it’s not on top of me, I can’t see anything else except for the light. Later, I turn to my side and see the edge of the bed/drawer, but otherwise everything is this all-consuming light.

It flickers and flashes and there is an intensity I can’t describe; it’s like a kaleidoscope sped up 100 times. I close my eyes and the colours and movements are still there; other times my eyes are open wide in wonder and I feel myself embracing it. There are fractals and mergings of colours that I’ve never seen before. I can only hear a dull whoosh which must just be the blood rushing through my head, but it’s not quiet.

At times I want to put my hand in front of my eyes and manage to resist – but it’s truly hard to be somewhere where you simply cannot look away, where you cannot look anywhere else but simply absorb what’s happening in front of you. I see a shade of pink I swear I’ve never seen before, and then I question if it was pink, and then it lingers too long but goes too quickly and I’m not sure what I’m seeing. The pace of the lights means I get squiggles, little tadpoles, flashing across my vision; specks I can’t get rid of.

Just before the end there’s yellow and black – I think bumblebee – and it’s on top of me. This is the only time I feel genuinely immersed, like I’m swimming through and breathing the colour – my friend describes it as flying through it. It’s what I imagine life would be like if we could see air. Rather than finding it claustrophobic, I enjoy it (my friend reports the same) and am disappointed when it ends.

The colour fades to one shade again and I can feel the drawer moving but I’m not sure if I’m imagining it, if it’s part of the experience, or if it’s over. It’s over. It feels like being pulled out takes days, but on seeing the foyer again my eyes immediately readjust.

So that’s Perceptual Cell. But there’s so much more the experience. Rooms where it looks like the light is just projected on the wall – yawn, big deal – but in fact the light is filling a cut out space and you can put your arms through it. (Not sure if you’re supposed to!) Another room is so dark it requires you to be there for at least eight minutes to let your eyes adjust before you start to see subtle shapes. Unfortunately I can’t report seeing any shapes – subtle or otherwise – but one of the three dull lights on the wall (and it’s enormous) won’t let me focus on it, reminding my friend and I both of a snowy television.

The stand outs for me are a room that has a room within a room within a room, and holographs that move with your vision. The final stop for us is the Ganzfeld. There’s been a constant line of people the whole time we’re there so we figure we should join it. Inside, there’s a square of bright light shining on the wall – but it’s not at all. People are in the light. We remove our shoes and put on plastic booties, and are again led up stairs and step into the square to reveal a huge room. There are walls but they’re not immediately identifiable – we’re immersed in a colour. It slowly changes and when I stand so I can’t see anyone in my peripheral vision it’s again that feeling I had at the end of Perceptual Cell. Here, though, we can look back outside the room we’re in to the room we can from. The wall we can focus on is, of course, an entirely different colour each time I look out. I don’t know the science behind it, but assume in the absence of light my mind sees a colour on the otherwise white wall. It’s a special experience, and well worth the short line to experience it.

The exhibition is great and enjoyable enough without Perceptual Cell, but I can’t not recommend it. It’s worth the money and is unlike anything I’ve ever done or expect I will do for a long time.

Date: Saturday, 10 January 2015

Where: National Gallery of Australia, Parkes

Cost: $45.88 for one

Value for money: High

Worthwhile factor: Highly worthwhile

Want more? Tickets can be purchased through Ticketek. Because of the need to absorb many of the parts of the exhibition, entrances are timed (ie there aren’t too many people there while you’re in it). Perceptual Cell sessions are booked right through February and some sessions in March, so get in quick.

5 Responses to “Perceptual Cell, National Gallery of Australia”

  1. MJWC1 January 11, 2015 at 10:22 pm #

    What a great write-up Tara, thank you. I keep thinking about going to this exhibition and your post has definitely inspired me to (much as your posts have inspired some of my recent hiking efforts).

  2. archetypicalone January 12, 2015 at 9:56 am #

    Reblogged this on Just another girl on a motorbike and commented:
    I think I want to go to this, but an not sure if I could take it. Would I put my hand up? Hmmmm.

  3. 36views January 12, 2015 at 7:31 pm #

    And this is another reason to love Canberra – access to incredible exhibitions like this right on your doorstep. Great write up, it’s really hard to do justice to conceptual/experiential shows like this. You’ve definitely convinced me to go!

    • inthetaratory January 12, 2015 at 7:50 pm #

      Another comment that’s made my day! Let me know what you think of it.

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