It was with my customary suspended disbelief that I sojourned to Houghton to see the work of the beloved James Turrell in Norfolk, England – and whoever would have thought that the enduring hand behind the magnum opus remodeling of Roden Crater, Arizona, would ever do anything remotely substantial in this part of the country – notwithstanding Norfolk’s apt reputation for big skies? Courtesy of Houghton’s visionary owner, David Cholmondeley, we have exactly that, a major showing of the artist James Turrell in East Anglia.
I was more-than-normally apprehensive at seeing one of my all-time favorite artists delivering up a mixture of established and newer works within the potentially unforgiving environs of Robert Walpole’s grand Palladian abode; would he, could they, really pull this off?
On arrival I was undeterred as I clutched my site map in hand and determined to see every last work, trek to every location, and vowed to squeeze out every nuanced moment of this major exposition. Some six hours later, I have to tell you that I was not disappointed.
Apart from seeking forgiveness from Milan Kundera in tumbling his title, I find myself trying to remain attentive in writing about the individual works in this show whilst being almost entirely compelled to relate the residual experience and effect; this show is one of those rare occasions where the whole really is greater than the sum of its parts.
In trying to make a start methodically, I was suitably impressed with Turrell’s Raemar Magenta (1970), whilst not a new work, is nonetheless poignant in the unexpected location of the stable yard. My fear at this point was that the unbridled enthusiasm of the invigilators was an indication that my expectations had peaked too early and that it was all going to be downhill from here; no such experience - I won’t (and feel compelled to not) tell you about Tortoise Beats Hare (2015) in the adjacent room for fear of spoiling it, but what I will say is that you will and should not believe what your eyes witness - This work is breathtaking and as it purveys a moment of most intimate theatre, even though the illusion eventually reveals itself, the deception is so convincing that we cannot help but trust Turrell’s illusion over our logical reality.
This ‘Magnatron’ is simple; sensory as opposed to spectacular, and disarming in relation to the grand anticipation elicited by the much vaunted twilight illumination of the Hall. Frankly, for me Tortoise Beats Hare is one of Turrell’s most engaging works in terms of interaction at human scale and psychedelia (in its truest sense) as an orchestrated perceptual shift. Do not miss it.
After traversing the estate to experience the remainder of the works in the show: 21.31 GMT hours approached (official sunset), I took up my position in the deckchair (provided) on this balmy Norfolk evening and waited. Sure enough, the various Palladian turrets, facades and colonnades of the Hall’s underbelly began to glow spectrally across the lawn. Initially the hues merged and changed with the sunset, but as the twilight faded, the output and intensity of the LED arrays became more pronounced, dramatic and surreal. Whilst there appeared to be no perceivable order or cycle to the programme of evolving chromatic combinations, the effect was absolutely compelling and far more dramatic at this monumental scale than I had foreseen.
As a caveat though I have to say that there were some questions about the (intended?) consequences of such a very large and ambitious installation: firstly there were undertones of other illuminated civic places/ buildings - the Presidential Whitehouse and NYC’s Empire State building being but two that sprang to mind, secondly, and in similar vein - though through the lens of European history, à la 1933 vintage - there continued a slightly discomfiting background hum around power and architecture.
22.15 GMT: the illuminations recede, darkness enfolds the shivering assembly and the arms of Orpheus beckoned this viewer away.
Apart from the detail, and above all else, Turrell at Houghton is a whole and holistic experience with numerous other works within the show, some of which are well known to audiences, including: Enzu (1968), Reathro (1969), First Light (1989-90) and St. Elmo’s Breath (1992).
The orchestration of the works at Houghton and the curation is stonkingly good and occasionally, literally and luminously, brilliant.
The opening lines of the catalogue that accompany the show is a quote from Anaïs Nin: We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect And here I am writing this quite simply to taste this slice of life just one more time.
 L’Insoutenable Légèreté de l’Être [The Unbearable Lightness of Being], Kundera. M. Paris: Gallimard, 1984.