The Ganzfeld Effect

The steps before me were a set of black, round ovals, tightly pressed together, like a stack of CDs. They led to a glowing, oval-shaped opening in a cavernous room where all I could see was a perfectly uniform, uninterrupted bath of shocking pink light. It was an art installation called Akhob, one of the artist James Turrell’s immersive works. Part of a series called “Ganzfelds,” they are white rooms the artist floods with colored light in a way that overwhelms your senses. People in the art world travel around the globe to see them; they can become obsessions. I wanted to know what makes them so.

Photo by Florian Holzer. James Turrell’s “Akhob” (2013). Copyright James Turrell.

Turrell’s “Ganzfelds” are named after a perceptual phenomenon called the Ganzfeld Effect, which occurs when your field of vision becomes entirely featureless. In the absence of signals for depth, shape or distance, the brain keeps looking for guidance. When it fails to find any, it amplifies the senses and mistakes neutral noise for tangible sensory information. In Turrell’s “Ganzfelds,” the room is meticulously designed to suspend you in this sensory confusion; visitors often mistake flushes of color for physical walls.  The light levels, the hue changes, the dimensions, the space’s shape all align to erase the distinction between what is “real” and what we merely perceive as realness.

I’d never been inside of a “Ganzfeld” before. I was nervous. I had heard stories of lightheadedness. Of nausea. Of falling. I was also there alone, with no one to catch me except the tour guide—a guy who looked about a decade younger than me, perhaps in his mid-twenties. I hesitated before ascending the stairs.

“James loved this opportunity, not only because of the space available to him—this is his very largest ‘Ganzfeld’—but also because this is the first he has been able to create without any seams in the walls,” explained the guide as I entered, feeling underdressed in shorts and a tank top beside his black Louis Vuitton suit and collared shirt. He stopped me before proceeding and held up a pair of white painter’s shoe coverings.

“If you could please put these on over your sandals, then we can go inside.”

Ascending into that shocking pink felt as if the light were coating the entire surface of my eyeball. Unlike an actual fog, which tends to gradually subsume your surroundings, Turrell’s effect felt hyperactive and instant, absorbing the definition of everything in sight as soon as I entered Akhob; my skin, my clothes, the guide himself all blurred into pink. But not for long, as the room slowly shifted to orange, then yellow, as if I had walked into sunrise.

I realized that the guide had kept walking into a second elliptical chamber of the space that was shifting into a cooler haze of greens and blues.

“Make sure not to wander past me,” he called out. “An alarm will go off, because where I’m standing might look like a wall, but there’s actually a six-foot drop just past here.”

I should tell you I was on the fourth floor of a Louis Vuitton store on the Las Vegas Strip. Although it was easily the tenth or fifteenth time I’d been to the Strip (a place I’ve been so many times I’ve lost count), it was only the second or third time I had ever been inside a designer store in my life. They litter nearly every mall on the Strip, but the only other one I could recall actually entering was a high-end makeup store once, to buy lipstick for my wedding.  This aspect made Akhob sound like some kind of portal, away from my relatively strait-laced life. Unlike the ease with which I walk into art museums and even galleries, my cheeks flush when I picture what the guide must have thought as he dutifully toured me through the company’s “artist collaboration” line of luxury purses on plexiglass display stands and the overabundant stacks of rich leather, Louis Vuitton-designed trunks, before we went up to see Akhob; I’m sure the simplicity of my white t-shirt and jean shorts was enough to make clear I wasn’t going to buy anything—that I was there because the art experience was free.  

But, I was also there because Akhob sounded like a world beyond the sprawling Strip and the miles of slots and elaborately patterned carpeting and rhinestone flip flops and clear plastic cups brimming over with bubbling pilsner that I had walked through on my way there. It sounded like it was designed for people like me—people who can see the Las Vegas Strip as the hyperactive, hyper-destructive, hyperreal experience that it is and love it anyway. 


I had a modest history with James Turrell’s work years before I visited Akhob, during graduate school in 2006, about ten years earlier.  I spent many hours in physical proximity to one specific photograph he had taken of his life’s work, the Roden Crater. Roden Crater is an extinct volcano near Flagstaff, Arizona that Turrell purchased in 1979 and has been converting into a massive, immersive art experience ever since.  When I learned of the crater, I dismissed it as an arrogant, overly ambitious and expensive project that would never be completed, irrelevant to me since I would probably never see it.

I came to know his work under wholly different circumstances. I was interning in the photography collection of a contemporary art museum on the University of Washington’s campus. Although the job itself was routine to the point of boredom—mostly spent entering artwork details in a database—my veins throbbed with excitement every time the Collections Manager handed me her key, a prox card that opened the door to the museum’s storage room. 

Walking through the threshold, the dry coolness of the dark, climate-controlled space washed over my skin. I would shudder as I passed through its rows and rows of shelves. One side of the room was neat and orderly, filled with boxes of unframed photographs; the other was an organized chaos of ceramic sculptures that bulged into colorful outbursts of organic forms and brimmed over the edges of their shelves. But my favorite space was the very back room, home to the oversized photographs and paintings that live permanently in their frames. There, the works are hung on wall-sized, sliding metal racks that I and another student would drag out as gently as we could, to inspect each work that needed a report. 

We were there to measure newer acquisitions and to check the condition of their frames, alternating between being the recorder and the light-shiner. On the days I stood still, holding the lamp while the other student wrote down the details, I found my eye drifting to Turrell’s photograph, which hung on the edge of a rack that seemed to always be protruding slightly, as if it couldn’t ever roll back into to place. Although I’d been told that the photograph was an overhead shot of the volcano, I could never see it that way. My mind always insisted that it was a close-up view of battered flesh—a subject I couldn’t imagine Turrell ever taking on. To my eye, the crater’s raised center looked like a wound that was distinctly smooth in its center and bruised along its edges. It was as if my eyes had been conditioned to see this image and this story; as if I had to bore into it more deeply each time I entered this space.

James Turrell. ‘Roden Crater (survey frame 5743)’, 1983. Henry Art Gallery. Copyright James Turrell.

My mother had a round, raised, perfect circle of skin near the ridge of her collar bone. It looked as if someone had placed a stack of four or five quarters inside her body and then stretched a sheer satin sheet back over it. I was around eight years old when it was implanted for her chemotherapy treatments. I couldn’t stop staring at it when her neckline was low enough to reveal this foreign, human-made device suspended inside of her, mostly because I was convinced it must hurt at all times, as if she were always receiving a never-ending shot, the only source of medically-induced pain I could relate to. My mother would catch me staring and insist otherwise. 

“Honey, it really doesn’t hurt anymore. It’s to help me so the shots don’t hurt as much when I get them.” 

Her skin seemed in agreement with this explanation; it was a healthy, uniform pale pink, without any traces of the brown and yellow bruises I’d come to expect to find on the inside of her elbow from her regular IVs. But she was also a nurse, which seemed to me to imply a relationship with pain distinct from my own, as if she could always see past it, to something better on the other side.

I’ve since learned that the perfect circle inside of my mother was called a port-a-cath. She had hers implanted in the early 1990s, when she was undergoing an experimental treatment for breast cancer.  I don’t know how it worked back then, but the portal itself is now made of silicone, and is attached to a slender, plastic catheter that feeds into a central vein, allowing for easy access via injections. I’ve read that you typically wouldn’t notice someone’s port-a-cath anymore, so they must have changed its design to be more discreet. Or maybe I’ve just begun to confuse what I remember of my mother’s neckline with James Turrell’s photograph.

I thought I decided to work in museums because I wanted to be close to artifacts and art objects, that being physically grounded by real things every day would offer a kind of personal fulfillment. I’d also just returned from a semester abroad, touring museums in Western Europe.  There, I saw what felt like the objects of “real” history in the flesh—the Venus de Milo, the David, the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, The Raft of the Medusa. Compared to the suburbs where I’d grown up, these objects held all of the weight and meaning that I thought I had been missing before college.  I was in my twenties, so my personal history escaped me. I had forgotten, or maybe willed away, all of the other things—the experiences I had among the staples of suburbia—as if they had no bearing on the way I made decisions and perceived the world. As soon as I stepped off the plane in Europe, it seemed as if I could finally shed all of the personal history I didn’t want to see and could finally focus on my new, “real” life.

A brick wall of my elementary school in the Chicago suburbs had been painted with a replica of Georgia O’Keeffe’s Sky Above Clouds IV, an expansive, breathy skyscape filled with lines of cotton-ball-like clouds that fade into a peach-pink horizon. Spanning over twenty-four feet wide, the original painting is so large that it wouldn’t fit through the doors of the San Francisco Museum of Art when it was supposed to tour there, in the 1960s, so the Art Institute of Chicago kept it, and eventually acquired it for the museum’s collection.

Georgia O’Keeffe “Sky Above Clouds” (1965). © The Art Institute of Chicago.

The year I learned about O’Keeffe’s painting was the same year my mother died, when I was nine years old. I was only beginning to know my father, who had previously been a weekend presence but not someone I would have said I was close to. I had a younger sister but she had intellectual disabilities that made it hard to connect beyond the day-to-day of watching television and playing board games. Back then I made my escape with the roving group of kids who played roller hockey and had water-gun wars around and around my claustrophobic cul-de-sac. I had friends but none who understood my new normal beyond the school day routine. I always would have told you I was fine, but the truth was I was reaching for connections to my being, mostly unknown to myself until high school, when I found other friends who wanted to talk about art and go to museums, too.

When my father asked what I wanted to do for my tenth birthday, I said I wanted to go to the Art Institute of Chicago, so I could see the real painting. Once I was there, immersed in paintings I realized I had been recreating in art classes for as long as I could remember—Matisse’s goldfish, the stodgy American Gothic couple, the expansive lawn of Seurat’s La Grande Jette—I nearly forgot about Sky Above Clouds IV. But then, as I descended a staircase, there it was, all on its own, hovering between the first and second floors. I could see the difference, why the real thing was better. Everything seemed even more true to the way I remembered the landscape outside of my airplane window, its cotton candy quality so pronounced it felt graspable, as if I would walk away sticky to the touch, from becoming so immersed in its subtle fade of those sherbet clouds and their saccharine promises. 

“So, this is it?” My father said. “Pretty.”

I didn’t want to talk about why I wanted to see it so much. I wasn’t sure if he did either, but I was sure he wouldn’t understand.

Biographies of James Turrell talk about his father’s influence as an astronautical engineer and a pilot. They mention how James learned to fly, just like him. How the artist spent seven months combing the western states by plane until he found the site for Roden Crater— a place where he could build a series of tunnels and orifices that open to the sky, creating a massive, meticulously crafted observatory to experience earthly and celestial events.

I read this and see Turrell spending endless stretches of time among Georgia O’Keeffe’s cotton candy clouds, sleeping under the wing of his plane, suspended in an escape of his own making. I detect something more to this story than the Quaker religion that so many Turrell biographies connect to his obsession with light; I’m sure that inspiration is true, but I am suspicious there is something more than faith that drove this man to the clouds over and over again, obsessed with a place in the middle of the desert. I know from experience how much easier it is to look at the object of the obsession—and how much easier it is to mistake it for the real thing you are chasing.

When I worked in the photography collection, my other favorite part of the job was handling the photos without their frames. I did this in order to report on their conditions—to find the places they had been damaged since their creation. There was a whole language of identification that I had to learn in order to do this work— abrasions, accretions, brittling, creases, stains, warps, yellowing, to name of a few. The photograph was reduced to a body of sorts; I was there to report on the harm that it had experienced during its lifetime. “Abrasion, 1/4 in. Located 2 in. from left border, 3 1/4 in. from top border.” The work was extremely tedious. And yet, getting to touch the work of art, naked and up-close, made each report on feel like an intimate relationship unlike anything that occurs when I merely see works on formal display in a museum. Whenever I encounter one of the images that I once touched, it’s like running into an ex-lover on the street—an extremely rapid shift in my perception. In less than a second, my eyes snap into focus, an invisible scrim is lifted and I suddenly see it more clearly. I’ve run my fingers over your body; I remember you.

I cannot tell you what my mother’s port-a-cath felt like because I refused to touch it. I was afraid of its raised contours, of its stark rigid shape, of the way it pulled her flesh so taut over its perfect circle. Now, I wonder how we hugged in the midst of this dilemma. Did I bury my face in the other side of her neck? Did I pull away if it felt too close? Did I run away in fear at times, not of her, but of the disease on the other side of her portal? I struggle to answer these questions because this is the first time I have thought to ask them with such specificity.  I want to say I don’t remember, but maybe I’m asking them because they are memories. Or maybe I’ve merely imagined asking them. Maybe they are faked memories that my brain clings to in the absence of information. It doesn’t seem to matter; the wave of sadness they unleash inside my chest is real.

Eventually, I find the information I’m looking for about James Turrell. A study guide the Museum of Fine Arts Houston put together for school children tells me: “Although Turrell was nine when his father died, his interest in astronomy and aeronautics reflect his father’s influence.” This leads to other tiny details. I read how Turrell was influenced by his father through the objects he left behind, like books and tools.

But most affecting is a story of how Turrell’s father was a bird watcher. He had a special room in their house with windows in its roof so he could call and listen to birds. When he was young, Turrell made holes in the room’s blackout curtains and pretended the clusters of light that twinkled through them were constellations. It sounds like the beginning of Roden Crater, a work of art that at first appears as if it is an escape—a turning away from all humans, a remote look at the vastness of the sky. But, when you see inside, it begins to look like a long and tumultuous return to the twinkling curtains that framed the room his father created.

I worry sometimes that spending so much time among untouchable objects is part of a larger metaphor for my life, indicative of an unwillingness to touch the “real thing”—the difficult thing.  The port-a-cath. The skin. That I opt to turn away when confronted with long and tumultuous problem of grief. But what if turning away is a necessary part of the path towards eventually looking? Can the substitutions and the real thing become interchangeable if, eventually, they make you feel the same?

James Turrell is still working on Roden Crater.  He is 77 years old.  It could be said he has spent his entire life trying to get back inside his father’s bird call room. When asked what the work has cost him, he often responds, “A couple of wives and several relationships.” It could also be argued that pursuing this work has guided his life along a path that orbits his relationship with his father. I want to ask him if it ever brings him close enough or if that closeness is what he is still looking for, four decades later.

Photo by Florian Holzer. James Turrell’s “Akhob” (2013). Copyright James Turrell.

Akhob’s lights take around twenty-four minutes to complete their cycle. When the guide told me I could stay inside as long as I wanted, I considered trying to endure the sensory disorder for as long as possible. I was there for almost one cycle when I suddenly decided to leave around what felt like the twenty-third minute; I realized I didn’t want to see Akhob all the way through. Ending seemed against what I saw as the intent behind Turrell’s art experiences, particularly Roden Crater, a work that I feel increasingly certain the artist took on for its impossibility, for the endlessness quality of incompletion. He found a way to live his life inside an endless process of looking.

Maybe, at their best, our obsessions keep us honest. They convince us we have found a distraction. An escape. A window to the clouds, a sculpture against the breaking waves, a wall of light that gives us something to chase in the absence of knowing the “real thing” we are after. But instead they suspend us, willingly, yet indefinitely, in the difficult thing we were avoiding all along. They force us to finally look.

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