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James Turrell leaves lasting impression on Australian art lovers

Nude gallery tours?

Spaced out visitors raving about brain tingles and new states of being?

Canberra may never be the same once James Turrell leaves the building this coming long weekend.

The long-running blockbuster retrospective by the world-renowned American artist, which ends on Monday, has marked a turning point for the National Gallery of Australia, the only institution in Australia to host the exhibition.

And the show's most talked-about experience – 20 minutes inside the mind-bending Perceptual Cell, an installation now owned by the gallery – will soon re-open on weekends from August to November, to allow the thousands of people who missed out the chance to try it for themselves.  

Gallery director Gerard Vaughan said while visitor numbers were necessarily going to be limited – the show is arranged so that only 120 people were able to enter at a time – many interstate visitors had raved about the exhibition, which is based on perceptual experiences, rather than a straightforward appreciation of art.


The show, which surveys each phase of Turrell's 50-year career, includes projections, holograms, drawings, prints and photographs, as well as 10 light installations.

By far the most popular had been the Perceptual Cell, a white metal sphere that produced an experience so intense that visitors were required to sign a waiver before entering.

Tickets to the Perceptual Cell sold out just two months into the show's run, but there's good news for the hundreds of people who missed out.

The gallery plans to open it back up on weekends from August to November, with tickets available on the NGA website from July.  

The show had also inspired a one-off, much-talked-about series of nude tours, as part of a collaboration with Melbourne-based artist Stuart Ringholt.

Mr Vaughan said while the tours had been a very Turrell-specific event – one that tied in with the artist's own philosophy that light is something the human body imbibes – it had brought worldwide attention to the gallery.

And while he skipped the nude tour and missed out on a ticket to the Perceptual Cell, even the Prime Minister himself gave in to his own curiosity on the weekend and spent Sunday afternoon on a private tour of the darkened rooms.  

Mr Vaughan said Turrell was a revered figured in the international art world, for both his consistent and unique career, and the effect his installations and philosophy had on audiences.

He said the NGA now owned seven major Turrell installations, including the specially commissioned Skyspace, as well as 20 prints, which puts the national collection on par with those of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas.

"Canberra's right up there as one of the world's main repositories of the work of Turrell, which I think gives us real standing globally," he said.

He said the show – the NGA's first major blockbuster by a living artist – marked a new era for the gallery, which recently opened a new lakeside space devoted to contemporary art.

The gallery has also just advertised for a senior curator of contemporary practice, the first such role as head of a whole new department.

Mr Vaughan said the department's collection would vary in terms of its scope, taking in the most recent 10 to 20 years of contemporary art. 

James Turrell: A Retrospective is showing at the National Gallery of Australia and ends on Monday, June 8.