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James Turrell's Lightness of Being

Las Vegas is where fans of the artist will find his latest work, “Akhob,” which debuts Friday at the Louis Vuitton CityCenter Maison.

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James Turrell

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Las Vegas, a city known for lights (the neon, blinking and staying-up-until-dawn varieties), is where fans of artist James Turrell will find his latest work, “Akhob,” which debuts Friday at the Louis Vuitton CityCenter Maison.


The third of three works commissioned by the house, “Akhob” treats viewers to an elevated exploration of light and color and its interaction with space. “We have a lot of misconceptions about light. Usually we are illuminating things instead of looking at the light itself. But I like this quality of the light being the revelation,” said Turrell, who was in Las Vegas two days prior to show the work to a small group of local customers assembled for an in-store dinner in his honor.


Given the ample amount of space in the desert city, it’s fitting that Las Vegas is the permanent home of Turrell’s largest “ganzfeld effect” project to date, at 77 feet long, 33 feet high and 44 feet wide. The term refers to the phenomenon of visual perception most often studied by staring at an unstructured uniform field of color.


But it’s an overly simplified phrase for what awaits viewers at the by-appointment-only installation. Open Thursday through Monday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. and limited to six viewers at a time, the work is an immersive event, the antithesis of a fly-by visit to a crowded museum.


Accessed via an elevator to the fourth floor of the Maison, the installation begins in a dim, dark wood-paneled reception area, where guests perch on a tan leather couch to hear a short background lecture on the work from a trained Vuitton staffer. “Akhob” is a word from the Amarna Period in Egypt meaning “pure water.” From there they are led into a pure white “pyramid chamber” where they don white booties to protect the pristine surfaces, and ascend stairs into two colorfully lit chambers to experience a 24-minute light show of sorts. As the colors change, viewers literally lose themselves in the silent, light-filled void. To prevent anyone from stumbling into walls or pitching over a precipitous drop at the far end of the space (an alarm will sound if anyone gets within 18 inches of the edge), two white-suited art students stand at attention, also offering a hand up and down the polished stairs.


Settled back into a velvet chair in a VIP salon of the store, Turrell gives an appreciative eye to the airy space, which opened in 2009. “There’s so much unused space here it’s bizarre,” he said. “Because [architect Daniel] Libeskind makes these shapes that collide and come together at odd angles, it gives you some really interesting spaces above the stores.”


Turrell said he had a vision for “Akhob” after seeing the CityCenter space three years ago. “I make things totally impossible and exceedingly expensive, and then I come to some reality,” he laughed. “It’s difficult for people to visualize from my drawings what it’s going to be, so I often find myself talking them into things that they go along with, and when they see what’s been made they are surprised.”


Turrell’s first work for Vuitton, “First Blush, Oct. 2005,” was a modular light-based sculpture projected on a flat screen in its Champs-Elysées flagship in Paris. His second, “Traveling Light,” for the house’s 2006 Icons exhibit at its Espace Culturel, reinterpreted a Vuitton wardrobe trunk into a traveling light box that was photographed on its journeys to other Turrell works. Known also for his use of natural light in his 80-plus “skyspace” works, Turrell uses LED lights for his artificial light works.


“Art inspires luxury, as luxury inspires art. This is why we have rich relationships with artists all over the world, be it curating exhibitions in our Espaces or more collaborative work with artists related to our products. These artists often become friends; it was the same with James Turrell. Having had the chance to collaborate with him in the past, we nurtured this relationship into the beautiful piece at CityCenter,” said Valérie Chapoulaud-Floquet, president and chief executive officer of Louis Vuitton North America.


Turrell, who turns 70 on Monday, was raised in Los Angeles as a Quaker but understood the relationship between fashion and art from an early age.

 

“My aunt was Frances Hodges, who in the Fifties was the editor of Seventeen and later one of the creators of Mademoiselle. She was my Auntie Mame; she loved culture. She was a Quaker, but she became a milliner against all Quaker logic — they feel that fashion and art are vanities — because she loved fashion. It’s something that I’ve always really enjoyed. Art is different in that respect because we don’t have to put out a line, except you are known for a certain kind of work, so it’s kind of like a line.”

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