LED Colour-Scapes

LEDs open up a world of colour. With a combination of white light and the three primary colours; red, green and blue, the results are endless. How do we put this palette to use? LED light cannot only be used to highlight architectural elements; it can be used to create atmospheres in themselves.

One master of these colour-scapes is James Turrell. The California native artist uses lighting devices to manipulate ourperceptions and experiences of a space, often creating elaborate illusions with light alone. His undergraduate studies in psychology and mathematics greatly influenced his work. Many of Turrell’s installations are based on sensory deprivation and the Ganzfeld effect. This is when the brain searches for missing visual signals – typically through static fields of colour – giving rise to an effect called “seeing black”. Some people also experience hallucinations.

One such illusion is his 2013 LED light installation in the New York Guggenheim Museum called Aten Reign. This is in reference to the Ancient Egyptian divine sun disk. The work was a twenty-five meter tall conical volume of LED colour and natural light that filled Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous rotunda. The work gives the illusion of flattening, then deepening the space as it slowly moves through the colour transitions.

“Here, there’s not too much difference, except this idea that I want to look at light, rather than have light illuminate another thing,” he explains. “I’m interested in the thingness of light itself, so that light is, is the revelation”.

A lot of Turrell’s work is about looking up to the sky, to experience his Skyspaces. Turrell has said that the work is about “seeing light as we know it but don’t see it very often with the eyes open”.

Aten Reign is constructed by five circular pieces of fabric, suspended from the ceiling with an aluminium truss structure. Each ellipse contains a hidden light source, casting uniform colour around the perimeter. The gradient of light decreases in saturation on each ellipse as it steps towards the centre void, which opens to the daylight. Each of the five levels of the structure consists of two layers of fabric, a white on the inside and black on the outside. This allows each section to reach full saturation and also contains the light from spilling into the other spaces of the museum.

The whole space becomes one immersive colour environment, with the walls, floor and ceiling seemingly disappearing into the shifting hues. The light is produced by two rings of coloured changing LED fixtures mounted and concealed on shelves at the base of each cone. There are more than one thousand fixtures in total. Each of the lighting fixtures is assigned its own DMX address, which is an interactive lighting control system. Turrell programmed the colours in-situ, having the ability to contrast to the surrounding canvas of the space. Before the opening of the installation, Turrell had said that “with light as medium you have to make the instrument first, then you can play it”.

Light is a powerful tool that can be an event in itself. It becomes interesting when the lines between inside and outside begin to blur, giving rise to new ways of moving through coloured spaces. Turrell’s illusions are as real as the walls the light falls upon.

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