“To understand Turrell’s art … it is necessary to have some familiarity with what Quakers do,” writes Morgan Meis of James Turrell, who was raised as a Quaker:
Quakers worship by getting together and having a meeting. All you need is two Quakers for a meeting, but Quakers are happy to get together in larger groups. Quakers conduct their meetings by sitting silently, usually for about an hour. Talking is allowed, but not encouraged. You talk if you are moved to talk. Otherwise, you sit quietly. It is fair to call this meditation. While Quakers are meditating, they seek what they call the Inner Light. The idea of Inner Light goes all the way back to the early 17th century and to George Fox, the very first Quaker. As a young man, George found himself displeased with religion in its contemporary form. He struggled to find the truth, as sensitive young men and women will do. These were years of darkness and tumult. And then he found peace. In 1647, George heard a voice that said to him, “There is one, even Christ Jesus, who can speak to thy condition.”
Fox remembered that Christ sometimes calls himself “the light” in the Gospels. He decided that light was the key to correct and meaningful religious practice. There is a light inside of all of us, he thought. When you connect to the light, you are also connecting to God. For this reason, Quakers aren’t all that jazzed up about specific religious doctrines. If you are wondering what to do, how to live your life, just sit quietly and try to listen to the Inner Light. That’s all the doctrine any good Quaker needs. The answers are there inside, because God is inside.
Meis particularly sees the influence of Quakerism in “Aten Reign,” Turrell’s current exhibition at the Guggenheim:
I’d like to suggest that the best way to approach and interpret Turrell’s installation at the Guggenheim is to say it is a Quaker meeting. Observe, if you will, what happens when people enter the ground floor of the museum. They stop and look up. They see that the spirals of the Guggenheim have been transformed into a glowing light installation. They roam around for a minute or so looking up. Then they find a space to lie down on the floor. Generally, they stop talking. They watch the glowing lights and the luminescent egg. This silent watching goes on for many minutes. More than ten minutes. More than fifteen minutes for many people, and more than that for others.
In other words, James Turrell has managed to get people in New York City to lie on the floor silently meditating for more than ten minutes. Most of these people have never meditated in their lives. Many of them would not sit still silently for ten minutes if you paid them to do so. But the power of the egg compels them.
(Photo of “Aten Reign” by Flickr user Nika)