TRIP THE LIGHT FANTASTIC; Artist James Turrell Guides Sue Steward around His Latest Interactive Exhibition, All about Light, Space, Perception -- and the Psychedelic Experience

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Byline: Sue Steward

JAMES Turrell is one of the art world's originals. A Californian who now lives on a ranch in the Arizona desert, for his latest London exhibition he has brought a collection of installations involving the electromagnetic radiation we call light. The main attraction will almost certainly be his Perceptual Cell Series, a construction resembling a Second World War landmine, in which lone participants are bombarded with light particles and sound waves.

When I arrive at the Gagosian Gallery to meet the legendary "light artist", his team are still constructing rooms within rooms, light-works, and programmes for the sensory perception machine. It feels more like a science institution than a gallery. Turrell is sitting facing a pastel-lit "window" radiating an alluring glow of pinkish, diffused light. He calls it The Tall Glass Window exuding "knowing light".

He's a tall man of 67, with a bushy white beard and gentle eyes and wearing a suit, but I had expected to see him in the lumberjack shirt and cowboy hat he prefers to be photographed in, maybe with a banjo on his knee. As our conversation shifts from the light effects created in meditation to mystical reactions to his work, I realise that he would be more appropriately pictured in a psychedelic setting, on the cover of a Pink Floyd album, say.

Turrell came to wider attention in London when he created a walk-in light sculpture for the Millennium Dome's chill-out zone and he has installed several "Skyspace" viewing structures in the UK, including in Kielder Forest, Northumberland, and at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, which have apertures cut into the roof.

The installations in the new show, Turrell's first appearance in London since Louise Blouin commissioned him to create a piece for her Foundation in 2006, are also interactive creations that challenge the sense of perception.

Raised in California, Turrell was drawn to light from childhood and on graduating (in art, perceptual psychology and maths), he co-founded the pioneering light and space movement.

"I never painted," he says, "light was always my medium." Recent developments have been architectural projects to house his light experiments around the world, but his hub is the Roden Crater, a dead volcano crater in the Arizona desert where he lives, which he has been transforming over the past 30 years, carving tunnels and creating chambers, ultimately to create a monumental "naked eye observatory".

It's not easy to explain Turrell's work, but he stresses that there's no need to understand the science of light or percep-tion; the point is to be open to the potentially transformative experiences. There's nothing to touch or smell; the light is as nebulous as sea-mist or smoke.

"We all use light to illuminate things," he says, "but I like the 'thing-ness' of light itself. So, here you're actually looking at light rather than looking at something that light illuminated." This lifelong obsession with light and space, he tells me as we walk around the galleries, was inspired by his father's career as an aeronautical engineer, and his mother's Quaker lifestyle. The aeronautical theme makes sense of someone working with infinite space, but less obvious is the Quaker link until he explains: "My grandmother used to tell me that at Quaker meetings, you go inside -- behind the eye -- 'to greet the light'. …