LOS ANGELES — A couple of months ago, on a press tour visit to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), I had the opportunity to experience one of James Turrell’s Perceptual Cell pieces — built structures designed to have viewers enter and experience a particular sensual cocktail of light and sound — titled “Light Reignfall.” The experience begins with one having a conversation with the person controlling the machine — I want to call her a caregiver — who placed headphones over my ears and a panic button in my hand, and gave me a choice of “hard or soft.” I struggled a bit with this, but eventually took the soft option because I didn’t want to pick an option based on seeming tougher, like I had something to prove. My colleagues on the tour had taken turns in the machine before me, and I knew it was an individual experience. After taking off my shoes, lying on a retractable pallet and giving the operator my choice, I slid into the machine.
If you have ever had an MRI, as I have, you would’ve recognized the basic structure of the sliding pallet that retracted into an enclosed machine taking its passenger with it. What followed, however, is difficult to reconstruct in language, because I essentially entered a fugue state.
Inside the chamber there initially was light enough to see, but it was so evenly diffused through the space above me that I couldn’t tell how far away the ceiling was. I decided not to try to raise my arm to find out, because it felt close. I knew that if I discovered it was actually very close, I would feel decidedly more claustrophobic than I was already beginning to feel. Sounds played through the headphones, but they were not recognizable melodies or a particular genre of music. While trying to understand what the sounds were, the light cascade began: a shower across the entire “room” of pulsing colors morphing from one hue to another in some orderly sequence, but not in a pattern I could discern. Time dilated. I worried that if I wanted to I wouldn’t be able to move my hands. I worried, because the combination of light and sound had taken me from myself. It felt like my ego had dissolved into a primordial wash of unformed human ectoplasm from which we might all originate, before we are differentiated into distinct personalities. I knew at some point I had to raise my arm, just so I still knew it was mine. I did. My left arm came up and I looked at it, glowing a phosphorescent blue. I was reminded of that moment in sophomore English class, reading Mrs. Dalloway, when the main character hears her name and realizes that she is a person connected to and in some way constituted by that name and so must answer. There was some part of me that heard the echoes of my name reverberating in my memory, and knew that I could still answer to it.
This is the small astonishment of “Light Reignfall”: that through a combination of light and sound, for a few moments at least, the work can strip you of all the typical assurances of selfhood, of what I think make me my own special person, and in that moment I suppose I glimpsed something that felt almost infinite — the totality of our collective experience as the human species of which I am and will always be a small part.
James Turrell’s “Light Reignfall” continues at the Resnick Pavilion of The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) (5905 Wilshire Blvd, Los Angeles) through May 29, 2017. Tickets are a $15 or $20 upgrade to an existing general admission (GA) ticket or specially ticketed exhibition for non-members.