Art philistine embraces the naked truth of James Turrell

I have Turrelled. I was clothed. Simon Elliott, assistant director, curatorial and educational services, of the National Gallery of Australia, read my column of March 20, and challenged me to open my mind to the contemporary artist. Thankfully, for all involved, it didn't involve any nudity.

Although, as a quick aside, I did receive another email about said column from one Michael Curry, from The Lake Edun Foundation in Topeka, Kansas, who, even realising I wasn't a naturist (and that doesn't mean I love nature so I found out), was hopeful of reprinting my piece in the foundation's newsletter, Bare Facts, (gotta love that).

Exhibitionists: A naked art tour of <i>James Turrell: a Retrospective</i> at the National Gallery of Australia.
Exhibitionists: A naked art tour of James Turrell: a Retrospective at the National Gallery of Australia. Photo: Christo Crocker

"You did raise some interesting questions regarding why are we so inhibited about the body," Curry wrote. "Your final paragraph is exactly what naturists have been saying for over 100 years. The question is, why can this simple truth be so eloquently stated, but continue to fall on deaf ears?"

You might apply the same question to contemporary art and the exhibition James Turrell: A retrospective. Elliott, who kindly took some hours out of his day to give me a personal tour, was patient enough to listen to my arguments about what I thought art was, or should be, and about how Turrell, sight unseen, didn't really fit my definition. More educated people, such as he, must tire of trying to educate the deaf ears of philistines such as myself whose art education begins and ends in high school, starting at dot painting and ending at Renoir.

But as he explained the installations, talked me through Afrum (white) and Raemar pink white and Virtuality squared, I began to, and I'm sure this pun has been used 1000 times, see the light. It was fabulous, and challenging, and provoking, and, in using a philistine's vocabulary rather pretty.

And the more I think about it, the more I realised I perhaps had already been thinking along the lines of Turrell, in my own little world. I love the way the light plays around the corners and the windows of my house, how when the moon shines, the shadows change and my own little art installation plays on the floorboards of my house. I remember too, those pre-dawn moments when the kids were babies and you'd find yourself just feeding and watching as the moonbeams played across their cheeks. How I judge, with increasingly weird accuracy, what time it is when I wake by nothing more than the light.


Another thing I loved about Turrell is that the man owns a volcano and he's made it his life's work to create a naked-eye observatory. (There's that word again.) Excuse me father, I don't wish to become an engineer like you, I think I will buy a volcano and turn it into art. Good on him. I wanted to give the old guy a big hug and thank him for having the courage to turn studies in mathematics and geology and astronomy into something so grand and out there and totally off the straight and narrow. Into art.

For what is art? Here's another question I put to Elliott the day after, after a discussion with my son and his school friend on the way home from Turrell. The two 12-year-old boys loved Turrell, as they tagged along on my tour. It made them think and feel and step outside their comfort zone (and, yes, of course, there was one rude joke about the nude tours and a certain part of your anatomy turning a different shade, but boys will be boys).

But on the way home I asked them, what is art? After much discussion they suggested that art is something that you can't touch. I think that's why they enjoyed Turrell so much. It was something you experienced, participated in, in a way. My son declared it the best thing he had ever seen at the gallery, and to my credit he's been to more than a few blockbusters, for this one he felt part of, he wasn't just a viewer, being told not to touch something, to move along. He thoroughly enjoyed it and sharing in their experience added to my enjoyment of it all too.

In our initial email exchange, Elliott alluded to the idea of how contemporary art and artists are sometimes misunderstood or ignored because some of us are unwilling to open our minds to what their art means, because it challenges us too much.

I was in that boat. It's easy (well easier) to look at a painting and say, yep, that's a bunch of people in straw hats and singlets having a lunch by the side of a river, I understand that (without actually probably understanding what it's really about).

Turrell made me stop and think and look at things in a different way and that in itself was so refreshing and I can't recommend it enough. Even if, like me, you have no idea of what it is all really about.

But as for the nude bit, with all due respect Michael Curry, I won't be booking my tickets to Topeka any time soon.

There's only so far one can go when challenging oneself.