Turrell’s Light in Plato’s Cave: New Perspectives on Projection Art

This paper investigates the philosophical dimension of James Turrell’s Projection Pieces. In 1966, Turrell moved into the former Mendota Hotel in Ocean Park, Santa Monica, and turned it into his studio. His first move was to paint every window-pane black and to cover up every seam, plunging the space into pitch-black darkness. There, he began to experiment with projected light and geometric figures, giving birth to his Projection Pieces (e.g. Afrum, Alta, Enzu), which present themselves as polygonal shapes of light that give an illusion of volume. Recently looking back on this work, Turrell repeatedly compared his Mendota work to Plato’s cave allegory, even stating in 2015 that “the Mendota was Plato’s Cave”.

Taking, as it were, the artist at his word, the paper seeks to offer a new perspective on Turrell’s light pieces through a close reading of Plato’s Republic. It emphasizes three points of tension between Plato’s epistemology and Turrell’s aesthetics: (a) the opposition between Turrell’s conception of light and Plato’s notion of shadow, (b) the opposition between Platonic truth and Turrellian illusion, and (c) the relation between cinematic projection and geometric projection. Each of these relations is argued to be in itself paradoxical. Indeed, the projected forms in Turrell’s works are made of light, not shadow, thus reversing Plato’s allegory; the visualization of geometric figures, associated with true knowledge in Platonic philosophy, is source of illusion in Turrell’s pieces; finally, the Californian artist conflated the aesthetic of cinematographic projection with the ideals of geometric projection, forming a new paradox. Turrell’s “cave” is thus reinterpreted as the mirror-image of the Platonic cave, and a form of skiagraphy in reverse. The paper also proposes to read the aforementioned antinomies as theoretical oxymorons, putting forward for consideration the possibility of identifying theoretical figures of speech in visual art.


David Zagoury

David Zagoury is currently a PhD candidate in art history at the University of Cambridge. His thesis, “Fantasia” and Imagination in Art Literature from Leonardo to Lomazzo, focuses on the conceptions of imagination developed by artists and critics in Northern Italy during the sixteenth century. David studied philosophy, art history and law at the University of Geneva (LL.B. 2011, B.A. 2013). He is affiliated with the Genius Before Romanticism: Ingenuity in Early Modern Art and Science research project. He received his Masters in History of Art and Visual Culture from the University of Oxford in 2014, where he wrote a dissertation on Brion Gysin’s Dream Machine (shortlisted for the AAH Dissertation Prize, 2015). He also worked for the Bodmer Library in Geneva and the Musée d’Art du Valais in Sion.