“Do you have a fear of enclosed spaces?” the white-coated attendant asks as she hands me the clipboard with the medical waver attached. I am about to experience James Turrell’s highly anticipated Perceptual Cell, Bindu Shards, part of the artist’s retrospective at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra.

After signing the forms and opting for the more extreme of the “soft” or “hard” options, I am led to the stairs leading up to the white spherical capsule. A draw has been pulled out revealing a white cushioned bed. I lie down, my heart beating wildly. Lines I have read about the psychedelic, mind-altering experience rush through my head, the anticipation building. I am handed a small panic button in case of any issues once inside, and sound-cancelling headphones are placed around my ears.

Then the draw I am lying in smoothly slides into the giant orb and locks. And it begins. I stare out into a vast, seemingly endless mass of electric blue that immediately creates a sense of calm anticipation. I am transfixed.

The light show starts slowly and then becomes a rapid stream of the most vibrant colours you can imagine, whirring, mixing and dissolving before my eyes can catch up. The experience lasts for 15 minutes, and within the first few it is already hard to decipher what is before my eyes and what is inside my own head. Turrell describes the kaleidoscopic effect as “behind the eyes” seeing.

“We eat light, we drink it through our skins. With a little more exposure to light, you feel part of things physically,” says Turrell. “Seeing is a very sensual act – there’s a sweet deliciousness to feeling yourself see something.”

“Light that we meet in dreams, the light that we meet with the eyes closed, often is lucid and gives greater clarity than when the eye is open,” he continues. “And so this idea that light plays an important part in our life is important to me. Where we generally use light to illuminate things, I was interested the thingness of light. The light itself was the revelation.”

James Turrell: A Retrospective is at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, until June 8. Tickets are on sale now via Ticketek (1300 795 012)

Advance booking is recommended because timed-entry sessions will be in place due to a limited-capacity for some works. Immersive installation, Perceptual cell, can only accommodate one viewer at a time (aged 18 or over), so it requires a special Premium Entry ticket.


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