Akhob—James Turrell’s third installation for Louis Vuitton—opened last June at Crystals in Las Vegas. Having missed all three retrospectives (at the Guggenheim in New York, the MFAH in Houston, and the LACMA in Los Angeles) in the past year, I was excited that my visit could coincide with some face of the artist.
The LV viewings are by appointment only and Akhob is Turrell’s largest ganzfeld to date. Guests, after taking a secret elevator up through the LV store, step into a pair of egg-like chambers infused with light. I dialed the number several times, calling over the weekend and again, into the week, with nothing on the other side.
The first time I saw a Turrell was at the Chichu Museum, which is home to only three artists: Claude Monet, Walter De Maria, and James Turrell. The museum is on the island of Naoshima, which is in the Kagawa prefecture and located on the Inland Sea in Japan. Picturesque, cloud-like, waves surround the island of rock and lush green. The museum, called Chichu meaning “in the earth,” is built (for the most part) underground by the architect Tadao Ando. Shafts of light, cutting into concrete, guide the viewer from the entrance through a series of impossible geometric paths in which the mind cannot be held at all. As regards death, or certain totemic or monumental art, the mind enters by contract as a formal feeling—nothing, as an all-seeing, all-absorptive aperture. Through this semi-silver darkness we climb into the Open Sky, Turrell, 2004. Flush white walls frame the gleaming seaside blue.
Here, in the northern Mojave Desert, Las Vegas rises from the heat and dust like another kind of island. Creosote, piñon pines, the blooming palo verde . . . slowly, the buildings stack up around us, blind leading the blind, lights blending into other lights. Blue cedar, smoke tree, the silver dollar gum. Dead wind. The sense that one could only hear on the edge of hearing. Chir of indigo and sweet acacia . . . slowly, like large obtrusive animals, we waded through the crowd swaying this way and that past billboards and filmy, flashing screens, moving slower and slower beneath an unbearable neon cloud.
Designed by Daniel Libeskind, Crystals is a folding curtain of stainless steel and glass. The several entrances make the layout confusing, but the Louis Vuitton was not hard to find. An associate came forward, running her hands along the counter all the while, nodding, then shaking her head, apologizing that Akhob would be closed all week.
I pulled a long face. Disappointment! Dis-appointment: the sadness that comes directly from being denied appointment.
The phone call, the repeated calls, the sweaty desert slog . . . and now, here, standing here in the brusque, ventilated air, amid these mirrored escalators, mirrored counters, mirror after mirror of Louis Vuitton bags, wallets, key-chains . . . knowing! There is a Turrell here! Behind some secret compartment. Hidden, behind this kaleidoscopic ritual of exclusivity, is the groundwork of my desire: to see it.
Crystals, it turns out, belongs to the larger Aria Resorts and Casinos, which scatters its collection (of twenty-two artists, including: Jenny Holzer, Frank Stella, Richard Long, Donald Judd, Henry Moore and James Turrell) throughout the various concourses and lobbies of the mall, hotel, and casinos. We pulled a map from the info desk and followed a finger on the paper. Past some installation of twisting water vortices in front of the Hermès, we were in view of the other Turrell. Consolation: there is another Turrell up by the monorail.
From below, the colored quadrangles look like blocks of stained glass, as if to simulate the perspective of a sloping chapel wall. And yet these shifting pastel shapes seem so not out of place, so perfectly placed to do its unthinking, ambient, work—this, itself, was unsettling. At the end of the hall, a pair of escalators take us up to the monorail, and a small plaque (the size of a notecard) indicates its title. Shards of Color overlooks the lower concourse (Dior, Dolce & Gabbana, Starbucks) but the way the openings are cut, you can’t actually look down unless you stick your head straight through. We walk stiffly into this hollow, hallowed neon like walking into a Lucite bangle by Alexis Bittar.
Just outside is the station. And there, several sprays of fern rear their sad swaying heads, drooping in the half-light, returned thus to their artificial place, not as plants, but as décor. This was what interested Walter Benjamin about the arcades, when nature entered the interior. Everything is bathed in this uneasy timeless glow. “The reason we have a very poor vocabulary in light,” Turrell said in an interview: “is because we’re thinking of the objects that pull color.” Here, amid the shifting shades of lavender and auburn dusk it is the plant-life, pulled out of their natural color . . . into dull, lifeless stupor. Faces of the family waiting in the station, also . . . pulled into a kind of ash, ambient terror. Art that does not wear well, note to self: it is rare to see objects in a Turrell.
But this terror of the everyday, I cannot say, is what Turrell had in mind. Although it gives us a small tissue of critique. And yet: what does it really mean for Turrell to be here, lighting the monorail station inside a luxury shopping mall in Las Vegas?
Or Judd, for that matter, in the lobby just outside the casino floor, represented by a series of untitled drawings suspended in mid-air, in the middle of an up-escalator and on top of swirly black and white wallpaper? And Moore, his reclining mother and child, lodged between two glassy outer-walls, in a narrow green space next to the bar? Or Long, his mud drawings (mud from the River Avon) applied to the building with his own hands . . .
As written in our map guide to the collection, “these works were strategically placed to fascinate and educate guests.” The placement of the artworks is secondary to the place of the Aria, and takes on “a clausal complement,” as my husband says, in one of his poems. The artwork is not transcendent, but becomes, in my mind, a beautiful admission to the complicity of capital. A kind of homecoming, in which the curatorial curtains, usually trying so hard to erase money on the other side, returns us here to its super-sensual face, to the mother of all concepts and cheap thrills: the fascination of money—which, for all its specular footing, draws its better breath in boredom, fatigue . . . rather than moments of pure futility, where the fascination is everything.
See a preview of my disappointment: here.
Born in Shanghai, poet Lynn Xu earned a BA from the University of California at Berkeley and an MFA at Brown University. She received a Catherine and William L. Magistretti Fellowship and a Jacob K. Javits Fellowship for her doctoral studies at the University of California at Berkeley. Influenced by surrealism,...