By Brian Nixon, Special to ASSIST News Service
ALBUQUERUQUE, NEW MEXICO (ANS – August 8, 2017) — At a recent concert at the Albuquerque Museum of Art—part of the Hollywood Southwest exhibit, I was introduced to a new piece of music, Michael Gordon’s composition for solo violin and electronics, Light is Calling. Working in partnership with the ensemble Chatter, the Museum’s concert featured art-film movies projected over live music. At the event I was able to see Thomas Edison’s 1910 version of Frankenstein and Rene Clair’s Entr’acte. Entr’acte is a notable Dada film staring prestigious artists such as Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, and composer Erik Satie (who wrote the music for the movie).
In addition to the Erik Satie piece, the musical program for the evening consisted of compositions by Mark Schultz (Dragons in the Sky, written for J.R.R Tolkien’s Silmarillion), Shulamit Ran’s East Wind for solo flute, and Michael Gordon’s Light is Calling.
It was Gordon’s music played over Bill Morrison’s film Light is Calling (2004) that had the greatest impact on me . As I sat and watched the ethereal movie while violinist David Felberg played his violin—a silhouette against the screen, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of engagement with the composition, both visually and musically.
The basis for Morrison’s film is the 1926 movie The Bells, a murder mystery directed by James Young. Bill Morrison edited the original movie into a seven-minute work that shows glimpses of the original movie with the decaying semblance of the film, the result being somewhat melancholy and mysterious work of art. Michael Gordon’s music was a fitting companion to the piece, adding a slow-building and harmonious texture.
Film critic, Christopher Zinsli correctly states concerning the film, “’Light is Calling’ [is one of Morrison’s] more accessible works, an incomparably beautiful and sad film experiment. … Only in the final thirty seconds or so does Gordon’s haunting avant-garde score cross the line into dissonance, breaking the delicate connection it held with Morrison’s images. Still, this breathtaking film manages to capture your emotions as well as your eyes.”
As inferred in Zinsli’s comments, Light is Calling requires time to realize, allowing the movie and music to unfold in varying, gradual, and measured ways. As I was watching Light is Calling and listening to Gordon’s music, my mind kept wandering to the book Slow Art: The Experience of Looking, Sacred Images to James Turrell by Arden Reed . In this book, Reed takes us on an appreciative journey of art that requires time to appreciate and assimilate, all the while discussing the spiritual and emotional connotations slow art breeds. For Reed, slow art is a “dynamic relationship that transpires between objects and observers.” Slow art is akin to sacred art, something analogous to what Christian iconographers attempt to initiate: contemplation and deep thought. The culmination of Reed’s book climaxes with the work of Quaker artist, James Turrell, particularly Turrell’s monumental Roden Crater in the desert of Arizona.
For those not familiar with James Turrell (b. 1943) a short word is in store. Turrell is one of the leading visual artists living today, receiving countless awards throughout his storied artistic career. As a Quaker, Turrell has spent his life pursing the light (the main medium he uses in most of his artwork). According to Quaker Artist, “Turrell has produced over 120 one-man shows and taken part in over 115 group exhibitions on virtually every continent. He’s been awarded numerous honors, including the Legion of Honor, a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Several books, like Long Green and many articles, as in Time have been written about him. He appeared as the final artist in the BBC documentary American Visions.”
Turrell has been working on his massive Roden Crater monument outside of Flagstaff, Arizona since 1974. It may be his Magnus Opus: a land-art piece in a dormant cinder cone volcano so large in scope that it rivals any major monument found throughout the world . One could summarize Turrell’s work as a means to draw people to the Light (in Quaker terminology light is synonymous with Christ) — in sense, perception, impression, and experience. In a way, Turrell’s work can be seen as an immense light icon, something harkening back to the work of abstract iconographers such as Kazimir Malevich, leading to the movement of Minimalism.
As a visual icon, James Turrell’s work can be interpreted as a means to contemplate God’s immensity.
As an artistic form, icons are an early Christian painting practice established within the 2nd to 4th centuries. Icons are not meant to be realistic imagery—as in perfect representations of a Biblical story or event, but were meant to be physical representations that reveal metaphysical truth, a type of reverse and spiritual perspective. Andrew Spira reminds us in his book The Avant-Garde Icon, “The definitive characteristic of icons goes beyond artistic or sociological significance; it lies with their metaphysical identity.”
Icons were emblems of God’s eternal ideals. Icon’s typified transcendent reality; a means to ponder God’s works as they takes on physicality through His creation, God’s thoughts made visible. The best Biblical representation of this concept (to the most sublime degree) is the incarnation of Jesus Christ. In the letter of Colossians Paul uses the Greek word eikon to describe Christ (Colossians 1:15). Icons are a painterly means to represent Biblical truth, as words do through a sermon. As an early church council stated, “Whatever the doctrine says with words, the icon carries with lines and colors.”
Like an icon, Turrell’s cumulative work has both physical (the light and medium) and metaphysical qualities. Yet unlike historic icons (where an image is painted), Turrell’s work seeks the essence of the object, its minimal influence (light, line, color) — much like Russian painter Kazimir Malevich did with his Black Square painting.
Furthermore, Turrell’s art requires what Reed suggested, a “dynamic relationship that transpires between objects and observers.” This is what icon artists’ sought for their work as well: that the icon would act as window to the heavens for the observer. And if anything, Turrell’s Roden Crater opens up a window to the heavens, combining immensity with immediacy.
And though much more could be written about Turrell’s work as an icon, particularly as a form of a minimalistic Christian imagery, the best way to appreciate his work is to view it, slowing down enough to experience the affect light has on an individual as it calls for deep thought and engagement.
It’s as Michael Govan states in an essay in a book about Turrell, “The Quaker concept of ‘inner light,’ which is shared in a collect silent-prayer meeting, is echoed in the experience…in the collective silence, duration, and receptivity they induce. Quaker practice can be seen as the Minimalist of Christianity, a reduction in form in search of a deeper, more honest effect .”
In short, Govan’s key words of silence, duration, and receptivity equate nicely with Reed’s understanding of slow art, an experience that “transpires between objects” (the art) and the “observers” (the people).
So do yourself a favor: slow down—take the time—and embrace slow art, like Morrison’s film, Gordon’s musical composition, or Turrell’s artwork; let art be a means to reflect on the beauty and truth of God’s grandeur.
Turrell’s work can be seen on a continual basis — of all places — in Las Vegas, Nevada at the Aria Hotel. The work displayed at the Aria is called Shards of Color, 2013.
4) James Turrell: A Retrospective by Michael Govan and Christine Y. Kim
Photo captions: 1) James Turrell at Roden Crater. 2) Arden Reed. 3) James Turrell’s Roden Crater interior. 4) Black Square by Kazimir Malevich. 5) Shard of Color by James Turrell. 6) Brian Nixon.
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About the writer: Brian Nixon is a writer, musician, artist, and minister. He’s a graduate of California State University, Stanislaus (BA), Veritas Evangelical Seminary (MA), and is a Fellow at Oxford Graduate School (D.Phil.). To learn more, click here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brian_Nixon
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