I have just experienced the artist James Turrell’s work Bindu Shards. In the Gagosian Gallery near King’s Cross stands a white-painted metal sphere that looks like a deep-sea submersible. Which, in a sense, it is: both take you on a mind-boggling journey. The technical term for Turrell’s device is a perceptual cell. It is staffed by white-coated attendants who may or may not be medically trained, but who get you to fill out a waiver form declaring you are not epileptic and have not taken drugs that day (“Yesterday is fine, but today this is your drug”) and ask you to choose the soft or hard version of the 15-minute optical voyage.
Opting for the hard version, I am placed on a sliding medical bed, counselled some more and locked in the sphere. And it begins. A relaxed ambient expanse of blue is shattered by high-speed flashing that rapidly becomes an ever-changing pattern of flowers, crystals, galaxies, quasars and nebulae.
Then I see a cityscape of vertiginous skyscrapers, with no earth below. All these forms and volumes that pulse and metamorphosise are defined by colours that change convulsively – the most intensely saturated greens and reds you can imagine, colours that seem solid, then burst into microscopic patterns of oranges, blacks, gold and misty white; all these colours bubble and whir at breakneck speed, as if you were in a particle accelerator.
But the most important part of the experience is that you do not know what is inside and outside your head. I saw a space, or rather an ever-changing succession of spaces, but these were independent of any actual material reality – they existed only in my head. What the perceptual cell does is bombard you with flashing lights to trigger the mind’s eye by exploiting a perceptual phenomenon called the Purkinje effect. The whole of space seems compressed into your skull.