The Visual Trick Behind James Turrell’s Latest LED Trip “Aten Reign”

A master of perceptual manipulation, Turrell’s luminous installations are being exhibited simultaneously in three cities this summer. Aten Reign opens at the Guggenheim today.


Is there anything we take for granted more than natural light? It’s all around us and yet mostly invisible. We’re usually awestruck when we do notice the light, which may be why there are so many Instagram photos of sunsets.


The artist James Turrell has devoted his career to making light more visible. And today, to coincide with the summer solstice, New York’s Guggenheim Museum is presenting a solo exhibition by the artist that debuts a new installation called Aten Reign. It transforms the conical interior of the iconic Frank Lloyd Wright building into a slowly pulsating color chamber that flattens and deepens the space, slows time, and imbues the natural light from an oculus in the ceiling with a tangible quality. It’s the only site-specific work created as part of three concurrent and independently curated Turrell shows taking place this summer, and it is possibly his largest installation outside of Roden Crater, the 600-foot-tall cinder cone in Arizona that is both an art installation and a celestial observatory.

The work is about “seeing light as we know it but don’t see it very often with the eyes open,” Turrell said during the press preview yesterday afternoon. “In some way, it reminds us that we have this other way of seeing.”

James Turrell | Photo by Florian Holzherr

Aten Reign looks solid, as though hours of plasterwork might have been involved in its construction, but it’s actually made of five circular pieces of fabric that are suspended from the ceiling with an aluminum truss. The fabric forms a series of concentric cones, each embedded with more than a thousand computer-controlled LED fixtures (made by Philips) that shift color–imperceptibly at first, then faster until you realize that the orange has turned to blue, then the blue to purple, and so on.

The effect is mesmerizing and somewhat hallucinatory–it’s designed that way. Turrell, who studied psychology and mathematics as an undergraduate, has cited the influence of the Ganzfeld effect, a perceptual phenomenon that results from being exposed to a uniform field of visual stimulation. (Think: snow blindness.) The technique can be used to induce hallucinations.

This has caused trouble in the past: Two lawsuits were filed as a result of Turrell’s solo exhibit in New York City in 1980. One by a retired judge who claimed, according to The New York Times, that his wife “became disoriented and confused” and was “violently precipitated to the floor” as a result of viewing a portion of the show.


Turrell’s most extreme implementation of the Ganzfeld effect, Light Reignfall, is on display this summer at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. This “perceptual cell” is a spherical chamber that a single visitor enters on a sliding bed. For the next 12 minutes a technician surrounds that viewer in saturated light. (You must be over 18 and sign a waiver prior to entry. Tickets are already sold out through the middle of October.)

Although Turrell came to prominence in the mid-1960s, the white-bearded septuagenarian’s artwork is inspired by his Quaker upbringing. His grandmother once told him that going to a Quaker meeting was “going to meet the light,” Turrell said. As a youngster, he imagined having a roof open during a meeting that “brings the sky down to the space you are in.” He later created just such a “Skyspace” for the Live Oak Friends Meeting house.

Aten Reign

“The idea I’ve always been working with is this idea of inside to outside,” Turrell said. It requires some distance and a good deal of space, which, he said jokingly, is why his retrospective requires three different museums (the third is at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston). It also means that his installations change throughout the day. A scrim fabric stretched under the Guggenheim’s glass skylight makes Aten Reign look very different depending on the time or the number of clouds in the sky.

If you do get the chance to see Aten Reign before it closes in September, don’t go at midday. “We weren’t made for this light,” Turrell said during the noontime preview of the installation. His favorite time of day? Twilight.

Installation view: James Turrell, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, June 21–September 25


[Photos by David Heald | Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York | Florian Holzherr | Peter Blum Edition, New York | the Stedelijk Museum | James Turrell]

About the author

I'm the executive editor of Fast Company and Co.Design.