To coincide with the tenth anniversary of Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art, QAGOMA commissioned a work by James Turrell to effect an ambitious and astonishing transformation of the gallery’s architecture at night. Like much of Turrell’s work this one is a response to the building and perhaps also to the position of the gallery in Brisbane’s South Bank entertainment precinct. There is a tension which I’ll explore here between Turrell’s work as a renowned artist making international art and the localness of this work with its public presence creating nightly modifications to the Brisbane cityscape.
GOMA is set beside the river opposite Brisbane’s CBD with its sleek concrete, metal and neon skyline, and network of feeding arterial roads, defined by the massive development boom of the 1980s and 1990s, which earnt the city its Bris-Vegas moniker. It was a bold and imaginative leap on the part of QAGOMA’s directorate to add to this skyline and connection to the South Bank a destination piece by commissioning James Turrell to turn GOMA itself into the crown jewel as a lightwork.
The GOMA architects, Architectus + Davenport Campbell, working with lead architects Kerry and Lindsay Clare and James Jones, were keen to have a building that could transform over time with the potential to accommodate an exterior artwork in its facades. Turrell was able to respond to this earlier foresight. So although the artist and the architects of GOMA did not collaborate on Night Life the qualities of the building play an important and particular part in it.
The architects were interested in preventing gallery fatigue so there are refreshing views of the nearby Brisbane river from multiple levels. They were also interested in activating the edges of the building, in how it engages with its surroundings and responds to the sub-tropical climate. It does this in ways that are similar to the vernacular Queenslander house—large eaves under the ubiquitous brilliance of Brisbane’s light, and a human, not monumental, scale.
Two facades, the eastern and southern, of the 2008 building are clad in smooth, white opalescent Starphire glass providing an effect reminiscent of Japanese rice paper screens. These form a large continuous surface of panels arranged in horizontal grids with the idea that some of these could accommodate single art pieces. This is expansive architecture, orientated towards the inside/outside blurring of space inherent in Queensland lifestyles. It is not introverted. And Turrell’s proposition for GOMA takes this condition to another level by transforming the façade and the immediate environment of the riverside and street-scape on approach.
In his proposal to animate and activate the building, Turrell discussed with architect Kerry Clare, his vision for the building akin to giving it new clothes. Electronic light is the perfect medium to enact frequent changes of apparel. The gallery looks almost lacklustre or dormant now in the day by comparison, as it gears up for the transformation into evening party attire. Night Life appears as the daylight fades in that magic, fairytale hour of dusk (as late as 7 pm in summer, and as early as 4 pm in winter) and terminates at midnight, like Cinderella and her glass slippers.
The colour changes of Night Life sweep through the two glass panelled facades in either vertical or horizontal directions. The thing about LED light (Light Emitting Diodes) is that the change is not instantaneous, as in the change from green to red, as it must progress through the spectrum. The colours are subtle and slow, slow enough for you to wonder if there is a stoppage just before a new colour floods through the building to mark the passage of time. Colours are deft at facilitating transformation, and this is clearly what Night Life achieves in both the building and the participating beholder.
Animated by the rich carousel of spectrum colours in an 88-minute looped sequence. GOMA creates agency for the viewer and the gallery. As a participatory work, it’s an invitation to the viewer to come inside to experience the art and join the party. The intimacy and immensity of the work is compelling. These spectacular colours create an event space that is calming, joyful and satisfyingly immersive. Experienced collectively, often as part of a large crowd drawn to the building like moths to a lantern, this is rather different to queuing up to step into one of Turrell’s one-person pods or Ganzfeld installations.
There are two ways that you experience Night Life. One is rapid, veering around the bifurcating motorway towards the northern suburbs where you get a full view at the bend of the gallery as a block of bright colour and shape as form. The other is in close up approaching the gallery on foot from the river walkway and in the grassy park sloping down to the river. Turrell is here unable to control the threshold to destabilise perception, a favourite device in his gallery lightworks where he juxtaposes an enclosed space of sensory deprivation next to intensely illuminated works. Instead, Night Life expands its reach into the adjacent outer spaces round the gallery in keeping with the architects’ intentions to activate those areas adjacent to the gallery. With its ramps, shallow stairs and concrete pedestals this area is often frequented after dark by joggers and skateboarders, who like the motorway commuters are however briefly caught up in the experience of Turrell’s work as an illuminating backdrop.
The green of the well-watered municipal grass plays its own part in mixing and contrasting with the coloured light radiating from the building. The low boundary wall is a good place to sit and watch the transformations. When I visit on Friday evenings, there are people sitting around watching, enthralled. Some pose for selfies on the concrete plinths, and the work is often employed as a backdrop for professional photo shoots (as in my encounter with a group of men posing with skate board and fishing rod for the cover of a new fishing manual), among the many thousands of bystander Instagram posts. In all these instances of engagement, Turrell’s Night Life, adds to the extravert atmosphere of the whole South Bank precinct with its museums, theatres open-air markets and restaurants.
The demand for Turrell’s work by cultural institutions is underscored by the resurgence of light as a medium in art, that has gathered momentum over the last decade due to the expanded approach to public and architectural space, as well as the ubiquity of our attraction to screens. The White Nights phenomenon is a case in point, with the plethora of light festivals taking place across the globe, including Amsterdam’s Light Festival in 2018, for which artists were commissioned to respond to the theme of Marshall MacLuhan’s much-touted concept “The Medium is the Message”.
Turrell, following Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, is a pilot, enthralled by weather, atmospherics, and the substance of light. For Turrell, light is material, transcendent and primal, and as touted by Gaston Bachelard and Yves Klein, incendiary like fire: “you have to burn something to make light.” If, as David Batchelor has suggested in Chromophobia (2000), colour is somehow bound up with the fate of Western culture, it provides the means to re-absorb primitive, queer, carnal and feminine associations in a more broadly inclusive and all-encompassing narrative like the flow of light itself.
Are visitors to GOMA’s Night Life going to search for local analogies, or reflect on their own colour preferences? They certainly have the opportunity to do so.
Diana Young is an academic anthropologist, educator and curator. She convenes the University of Queensland Masters Program in Museum Studies. Prior to this she was director of the UQ Anthropology Museum. She trained as an architect and worked as a designer in the UK construction industry. Her interest in researching what colours do, in a social and cultural sense, dates from these formative experiences. Her recent edited book is entitled Rematerializing Colour. From Concept to Substance (2018).
Card (detail) from James Turrell, Night Life, 2018, Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane. Courtesy the artist and Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art. Photo: John Gollings