ACT News

James Turrell is transforming National Gallery with his spectacular light installations

A week ago, the walls were still being plastered, custom-built metal frames were being meticulously placed and lighting was being tweaked.

But as you read this, a remarkable transformation has taken place at the National Gallery of Australia, as it prepares for one of the biggest and most unusual summer blockbusters in its history.

The James Turrell retrospective has already brought hordes of visitors to two of America's biggest museums, including the Guggenheim in New York, which recorded its highest attendance rate ever during last year's show.

And now it's Canberra's turn.

In many ways it's business as usual for the gallery, which reforms its exhibition space each summer for the next major show.

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But this year, instead of spending millions on crating and freighting priceless artworks by long-dead artists, the gallery is pouring resources into fulfilling the vision of an artist who is very much alive and, at 72, creating his best work.

As you read this, Turrell is putting the finishing touches to his spectacular light installations, ready to introduce thousands of visitors to his view of the world.

One of the works, The Perceptual Cell, is so intense that visitors  are required to sign a waiver, one at a time, before being slid into the white metal sphere.

Assistant director in charge of exhibitions Adam Worrall said the show was the most challenging of his 25-year career.

"There is more construction in this project than anything we've ever done in the gallery in its history, and I feel like we're doing The Block three times over in 10 days," he said.

Curator Lucina Ward said Turrell's work, which spans five decades, was extraordinary because it operated on such simple principles.

His earliest installation, for example, dates back to 1966 and involves an intense beam of light projected into a corner, giving the effect of a solid cube of light suspended in mid-air.

"It's an incredibly simple principle but executed with such finesse of detail and such awareness of what light can do," Ms Ward said.

Many gallery visitors will already be familiar with Turrell through his Skyspace, the installation outside the gallery's main entrance, which was commissioned by the gallery to mark the opening of the new wing in 2010.

Turrell was so impressed with the quality of Canberra's light and wide skies that when the idea first came up to continue his massive retrospective here, he jumped at the chance.

The Canberra show, which opens to the public on Saturday and runs for six months, has been organised in partnership with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and has many of the same aspects as the shows there and in New York.

But as was the case in America, many will be disappointed when they don't manage to score tickets.

For the first time ever, Canberrans won't be able to leave seeing the show to the last minute - tickets for the show's centrepiece, The Perceptual Cell, have already sold out for December, and the show's limited space means only 120 people are allowed in at any one time.

James Turrell: A Retrospective opens at the National Gallery of Australia on December 13 and runs until June 8. 

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