It's strange to think that colours can be emotional. That watching a room change hue, from blue to green, almost imperceptibly, until suddenly the air is saturated, can make you feel something. It's not just amazement, or baffled curiosity, either. It's something deeper, a psychological unease.
This emotion was the overriding sensation for Adam Worrall when he visited the James Turrell retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art last year.
"You're just overcome by the beauty and the emotion and the light of the work," he says.
"And then my brain automatically switches to: how the hell has he done that? How has he actually achieved this? But then your brain is always dragged back to the overwhelming sensation that this is just beautiful."
Worrall, assistant director in charge of exhibitions at the National Gallery, was in Los Angeles to get an idea of a Turrell show, up close and behind the scenes. To get a sense of the magnitude of such a show, by such an artist. And then to come back to Canberra and work out how it could be recreated here.
We're sitting in a half-finished version of one of Turrell's works in the soon-to-open retrospective at the National Gallery. An iteration of his famous Ganzfeld series, it's a space with curved walls and an undefined back wall. We're standing in bare feet, talking, while the light pulses and morphs around us. Behind me, the entry way is a blue cube. Ahead is a horizon-less expanse of sunset-pink, that seems to tumble right off the floor and into infinity. I'm disoriented and fascinated. But apparently, I ain't seen nothing yet. This is only a test-run, to see if the space works. The lights are yet to be programmed according to the artist's precise specifications. Worrall says the effect, once the Ganzfeld is finished, will be more like walking into clouds.
The James Turrell retrospective, which opens on December 13, has been the most challenging job in Worrall's 25-year career, which has involved the last several blockbusters at the NGA. He and his team have been planning it for the last two years, and intensively for the last six months. And now, in the lead-up to the show's opening next week, things have never been more intense. It's always disorienting to walk into the gallery's temporary exhibition space so soon after the last exhibition has been packed up, and witness its metamorphosis into another era. But nothing has ever compared with building a Turrell show.
"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 says.
"That's all I can really equate it to. I watch those television shows and think, that's exactly what it's been like." In the past eight days, around 50 contractors have been hard at work, installing metal-framed walls, putting up plaster, installing intricate lighting. Almost all are from Australia, and many are Canberra-based. It's like a mini industrial economy forms when someone like Turrell comes to town.
Not that it happens often. James Turrell is an artist most famous for producing works that are almost impossible to describe to those who haven't experienced them. Made up mainly of light installations which, over his 50-year career, have become more and more technologically fantastical and ambitious, his shows give new meaning to sight, sound and physical sensation. Walking into one of his spaces, the mind might seem to be playing tricks on the eyes when you see wall that isn't there, or a solid, glowing cube suspended in a corner. Actually, it's Turrell playing with your mind.
The exhibition has been organised in association with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art which, along with the Guggenheim Museum in New York and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, held major retrospectives of Turrell's work last year. The shows were, by all accounts, magnificent, with one of the most talked about works involving an installation design specifically for the famous central atrium of the Guggenheim.
That was a site-specific work that can't quite be recreated in Canberra. But then, neither New York or Los Angeles have their very own Skyspace. Many Canberrans and visitors to the NGA will be familiar with Turrell if only because of his intriguing Within Without, one in his series of Skyspace installations that are scattered, sparingly, across the globe. The gallery acquired the Skyspace in 2010, to coincide with the opening of the building's new wing, and it has since become the NGA's most visited work, and not only because it's outside the building and open all day and night.
But by all accounts, this retrospective, which takes many of the best elements of the recent shows in New York and Los Angeles, is something else entirely. As well as the Ganzfeld, several installations and up to 50 works spanning his extraordinary, 50-year career, the show will also include the Perceptual Cell – a white, metal sphere that fits one person only and produces a 15-minute experience that has been described, variously, as psychedelic, mind-altering, akin to dropping acid, and producing "mind orgasms". Recently retired NGA director Ron Radford declared, without a hint of irony, that the Cell caused to him to lose all sense of space and time, a sensation that continued once he was out. It's an experience so intense that visitors will be asked to sign a waiver confirming they are not epileptic, and will carry with them a button in case it all gets too much.
It's worth mentioning now that trips into the Perceptual Cell are already booked out for the rest of the month. The whole show can only fit 120 at once and tickets are strictly timed. It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that many, many people will miss out on. That's part of the reason why it is running for six months throughout summer and autumn. But it's not the only reason.
At the age of 72, Turrell is one of the world's most important living artists – the only living artist, in fact, to have been the subject of an NGA blockbuster – and one who is, after 50 years, only getting better. His retrospective at the Guggenheim in New York last year had the most visitors in the museum's history and tickets to the Perceptual Cell in Los Angeles were being scalped online.
He has had around 140 solo exhibitions worldwide to date, but his most famous work is his masterpiece-in-progress, the Roden Crater, an actual crater in a volcano on ranch in Arizona. Turrell bought the ranch in 1979 in order to own the crater, when his Santa Monica studio, a shuttered hotel, was repossessed. He has since acquired the two neighbouring ranches and has transformed the crater into a massive observatory, designed for the viewing of celestial phenomena.
And although a reclusive man not given to the cult of personality, for NGA curator Lucina Ward, who has worked with Turrell for more than 10 years, it's his background, as much as his oeuvre, that makes him extra fascinating.
Born in Pasadena, California, in 1953, Turrell was brought up a Quaker by a conservative family who believed art was a vanity. Despite this, says Ward, the Quaker influence is evident throughout Turrell's work.
"The aesthetic comes through in that it's very clean and minimalist. It's austere," she says.
As a child, Turrell was encouraged by his grandmother to visit the local meeting house to "see the light", a concept that was more about capturing the light within.
"He also talks about being a young child…in the war period, growing up in Pasadena, his father is an aeronautical engineer, and he talks about having a blackout curtain. And then it gets old and a bit bung, and he starts to put holes in it to map out the constellations," she says.
"And the other story that I think is really intriguing as a sort of background to this work is that he talks about being fascinated by a childhood nightlight and starting to question the idea that the dark should be something to fear."
As the son of an aeronautical engineer, Turrell was just 16 when he got his pilot's licence, and spent a period before the Vietnam War as a conscientious objector. Instead, he was sent on a mission to fly Chinese monks out of Tibet in the late 1950s.
"I think that experience is really quite useful to understand the element of broad spirituality that comes through [his work], but also the interest in architecture, and eastern forms like the stupa in the Skyspace," Ward says.
But what's most fascinating to her is that before he became a serious artist, Turrell studied mathematics and perceptual psychology, a course that included study on the Ganzfeld effect. By the late 1960s, when he was studying in the Studio Art program at the University of California, he was working with researcher Ed Wortz, who was the projected effects of extended periods in outer space on astronauts.
This relates to Turrell's more contemporary work, especially the Ganzfeld, which works on the idea that once you're immersed, you can no longer perceive where you are. "It's done with light, but as Turrell himself says, when you work with light, it's a little bit how when you work with sound - you end up having to form everything else around it," says Ward.
"The reason that the Ganzfeld works the way it does is because our eyes don't have anything to attach to. There're no corners, there're no edges. So faced with that, our eyes do [things] – and this is why it's important that he studied perpetual psychology. He knows the strengths and weaknesses of the human eye."
There is a reason, she says, why visitors are asked to sign a waiver when they enter the Perceptual Cell, a work that has many overlaps with the Ganzfeld; it's a way of making sure people understand that their brains are being manipulated somewhat, both literally and metaphorically.
"It's a bit of what, again, the artist calls 'behind the eye seeing'. So if you've ever done any yoga or meditation, you know that you can get to that sweet spot, where you tap the ground and you're quite convinced that you're floating. James Turrell knows all of those things and plays off those things with his art, by using the colour in such an intense and saturated way, or pulling back and making the contrast," she says.
"The reason the Skyspace works, for example, is partly because of the way it's sited, and the way it's constructed, but also because we're playing off the light inside the space and outside the space. And our eyes don't have enough time to cope with the transition between a blue and a yellow, or a purple and a green, so we get these wonderful after-images."
It sounds complex but, says Ward, the principles behind it are extraordinarily simple, and there is a great continuity in his practice. Many of his works – the Skyspace, the Perceptual Cell – are parts of series, and many of the contemporary works can be traced right back to his earliest experiments, but with the added benefit of technology, ambition and the fact that he has such a huge support network.
One of the earliest works in the show, Afrum, dates back to 1966. Inspired by an experience many students will find familiar – being bored in a lecture and becoming fixated by the light coming from the projector, rather than the information being relayed – the work is basically a high-intensity beam of light projected into a corner. The effect, in the semi-darkened room, is of a solid cube of light floating in space, something you could almost walk up to and touch.
"It's an incredibly simple principle but executed with such finesse of detail and such awareness of what light can do," says Ward.
It's also deceptively difficult to recreate. The work entails building a corner into a wall but, as with all Turrell installations, the plaster and finish must be perfect, so that there's nothing to distract the eye.
This, says Worrall, has been one of the most challenging things about putting the show together, in time for Turrell himself to arrive for the final touches.
"We've spent the last two years, but really the last eight months, in really close contact with the artist, working back and forth on every single detail, every piece of documentation of every work, and it's all designed to within an inch of its life. Everything is exacting in terms of its dimension and its construction," he says.
"But that's what the show's about. It's about us making it look effortless, so you see nothing other than what the artist wants you to see."
He remembers the first time Turrell arrived in Canberra, after the gallery had commissioned him to build a Skyspace, and being taken by the Canberra sky.
"He looked up at the sky and he said, 'I feel like I'm at home'," Worrall says.
"We are the same distance from the equator as his ranch is in Arizona where he's doing his work on the Roden Crater. He said, 'The sky is the same. I know what it does, I know what it's going to do, I know what it does at dawn, I know what it does at dusk, and I'm really excited, I know exactly what I'm going to do here'."
And now, Turrell is staging one of the biggest shows of his career here and, better still, arrives in town next week to add his final magic touches.
James Turrell: A Retrospective opens at the National Gallery of Australia on December 13 and runs until June 8.