Five Honest Thoughts on Being Loved by the Perceptual Cell
James Turrell at LACMA


The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), known to most Californian college students as ‘that place from my spring break cover photo,’ is hosting James Turrell: A Retrospective until April 2014. The exhibit is an absorbing sensory experience, challenging our understanding of the visual world, erecting novel perceptual phenomena, and foregrounding a modernized spin on the ancient idea that light leads to enlightenment. The crown jewel of the exhibit, called the Perceptual Cell, is a freestanding enclosed structure (a cross between an MRI machine and a space shuttle), which you enter lying on a sliding bed. What awaits inside are twelve minutes’ worth of lights that saturate your visual cortex with throbbing stimuli and a concomitant monotonous sound.

Here are five things I became while inside:

  1. IMMERSED: There is nothing underwhelming about the Perceptual Cell. When you approach the construction, you are greeted by three technicians dressed in white coats. As they prep you, you are invited to take off your shoes and empty your pockets. You are then provided with a clicker, which you should only press if you begin to feel that you cannot finish the installation. All of these scripts that the technicians follow serve to engage you. You feel your firm grip on the situation slowly releasing itself as the technician rolls your bed into the cell.
  2. AFRAID: A milky cloak light illuminates the space. This only lasts for a few minutes, and a vehement assault of encompassing flashing colors ensues. Depending on which ceiling focal point you choose, the patterns that form will differ. Regardless, the frequency of the flashes, combined with the intensity of the colors, makes your eyeballs hurt. Your brain starts to feel too big inside your skull as you forget about the clicker and come to the realization that there is no getting out. Your body is, for all intents and purposes, not your own anymore.
  3. EXPOSED: Once the initial shock wears off, you begin to realize how gorgeous these patterns are. Turrell has played with depth perception and texture to bring a visual stimulus that you consider to be on the inside of your eyelids, as though you were in the midst of a vivid dream. It is only by bringing your hand in front of your face that you realize that these are still light projections on the ceiling of the Perceptual Cell, and your eyes have been open all along. You feel confused, because this is not a mere optical illusion; you thought you had at least a faint idea of what was going on inside your mind, and what was going on outside of it. It almost makes you feel fragile to know that inside this contraption, your inner and outer worlds combine.
  4. CALM: I am an introvert –I like to recharge my batteries alone. While inside, however overwhelmed, I felt safe. I felt as though any blow from the outside would be cushioned by visual cocoon that surrounded me. My roommate, an extrovert who went before me, explained that he felt stimulated by the flickering patterns, and this made him feel rested. Lesson learned: this installation places you in a space of love and comfort, regardless of how you may arrive at such.
  5. META: That’s right, there is probably no other way to explain this: while inside, I became meta. For the first time since taking AP Psych in high school, I began to question how much of what I was seeing was actually there. For the first time since someone at Synergy managed to convince me that “these were regular brownies,” I let my inhibitions go. For the first time in a long time, in the Perceptual Cell, I saw myself see. And it felt amazing.


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