Encountering the Medium: A Few Lessons from James Turrell’s “Shanta II (blue)”

By Lucija Furac

November 1, 2019

James Turrell, Shanta II (blue) (1970). Approx. 106.6 cm. Image courtesy of National Gallery of Australia.

In 1970, James Turrell made Shanta II (blue), a projection of blue light cast across the meeting edge of two walls. At first glance, the work comes off as a cuboid floating in space, but it’s actually a vibrant illusion created by light: deceptive about its proximity to the observer. Once past the optical illusion in question, what one perceives is revealed to be nothing more than the medium itself. Mediation is not exclusively a phenomenon of art, but in the case of Shanta II, it seems specifically interesting that it occurs without the existence of a solid object. Shanta II might put in focus what it means to observe in general, reminding one that such a process always involves some manifestation of the material aspects of the media in question.

In his book, Film als Kunst (1932), which was only published in English much later (in 1957 as Film as Art), Rudolf Arnheim had read artistic and scientific descriptions of reality as moldings deriving not so much from the subject matter itself as from the properties of the medium. Marshall McLuhan, conceptualized the medium as a message in his 1964 work Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, seeing the very channel in the process of mediation as the piece of information to read. Also in 1964, Maurice Merleau-Ponty pointed out the paradox of the perceived object in his The Primacy of Perception, since the object exists solely as based on someone’s ability to perceive it in the first place. Jean-François Lyotard similarly wrote in Matter and Time from 1998 on how “the body is a confused speaker: it says ‘soft’, ‘warm’, ‘blue’, ‘heavy’, instead of talking straight lines, curves, collisions, and relations.” In Turrell’s Shanta II, there is nothing but light to grasp, yet one looks for an object, a given mass, and something out there to call out. One’s eyes linger around the naked, purified medium — light. There is just luminescence; uncontaminated blueness for those who are unbothered by the wavelike nature of light, and call what is represented by its appearance, its color.

James Turrell, Shanta II (blue) (1970). Approx. 106.6 cm. Image courtesy of National Gallery of Australia.

If one regards Shanta II as a piece pure in its medium and based solely on the material aspects of nothing else but light, they end up with a representation that only light can provide, a different kind of representation from the ones possibly given by sound, paint, stone, or glass. At the core of the reception of Shanta II, one cannot claim to “get” anything but light, no matter what kind of thought or feeling the work might otherwise ignite.

Is there an object in Shanta II? If one speaks of a painting, a photograph, or a sculpture as objects, it means nothing for the domain of art, which these objects might inhabit. Objects could also be non-artistic, purely informative. A photograph, for instance, does not have to be artistic, but a piece of visual information in a newspaper article or someone’s representation in an identifying document. In any case, it serves as a portrayal, something performing a specific role for the receiver. One does not apprehend the object; one apprehends the depiction. Even better, when it comes to sound, Shanta II arrives without mass or volume. If one is visually literate, they know the convention which means the representation should not deceive. It is known, familiar.

Constantin Brancusi, Newborn #1 (1915). White marble, 15 × 21 × 15 cm. Philadelphia Museum of Art: the Louise and Walter Arensberg Collection, 1950. Image courtesy of ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2012.

But Shanta II does deceive. It lies about its volume, its folded shape, it lies about being there as an object to touch and hold. As Lyotard says, “Lines, curves, collisions, and relations,” are all the viewer receives from other artworks too, even when the existence of their mass and volume is not in question. Constantin Brancusi’s Newborn [1] (1915), might be an example of a compact sculpture, comprehensive in its volume, if there could be such a category of sculpture to begin with. All the same, its mass or volume would not be observed as such, nor the smoothness of its surface, even if one recognized these traits. One cannot really see what is communicated through touch, but most viewers would expect Newborn‘s surface to be smooth under one’s fingers. Still, the observer would feel confident making this or similar claims without ever having touched the work.

If Shanta II tricks with its object-like properties at the literal level, artworks in general do it at the figurative level. ‎Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s Napoleon I on His Imperial Throne (1806), for instance, certainly does not make the emperor present at the place of the painting, yet the observer remarks on the emperor’s “presence,” and talks about his porcelain skin, the red and white robe he wears, the golden laurel wreath around his head, as if his painted likeness was participating physically in the moment. Napoleon, however, exists there in no other way than as a representation.

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Napoleon I on His Imperial Throne (1806). Oil on canvas, 259 cm × 162 cm. Musée de l’Armée, Hôtel des Invalides, Paris. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

To grasp the artwork is to grasp the fact of its delineation, to comprehend it, to bypass the fact that Ingres’s Napoleon is nothing but the paint and canvas used in the process. One can mystify workmanship, see an imprint of a genius’s talent in it, but that belief does not free an artwork from its core operational conditions — there are material aspects that allow one to perceive colors, shapes, structures, sounds, and sensations. If art, as any other representation for that matter, deceives at some level, it does at the utopian level of literal presence of some sort of content. Shanta II serves as a basis for the illumination of these dynamics. By its (principal) simplicity, it escapes the category of “object” in the physical sense, but it also operates differently from utilitarian, common objects that one looks at with the intention of finding purpose.

What is being represented? In the case of Shanta II, one might claim that it is a blue cuboid. In the case of Napoleon I on His Imperial Throne, it would be the emperor. Whether a blue cuboid has a “meaning” outside of it being a blue cuboid is irrelevant. Whatever one might read in it, it only becomes present through the material aspects of its medium and, in that way, is inseparable from something as elementary as the experience of light, shape, form, line, etc. The easy misapprehension of an artwork’s content as something to be extracted, dissected, and directly accessible is understood, at the literal level, through Shanta II, as is the futile belief that one could circumnavigate its mass, feel its texture, or even lift it up and carry it away.

Lucija Furac is a freelance writer with a background in comparative literature and art history.

Leave a Reply