When you enter the second floor of the Mattress Factory Museum in Pittsburgh, the elevator doors open to near-complete darkness. A single dim bulb, directly ahead, illuminates a wall-mounted map. YOU ARE HERE
declares a large gray circle; from its edges multiple arrows snake mazelike through corridors that lead toward the floor’s secluded corners. CAUTION: RAMP
one of the arrows warns.
You must commit this guide to memory, as once you leave the barely lit foyer, handheld maps become unreadable. 2ND FLOOR
: states the informational material provided at the front desk, Floor intentionally dark
. Another way of saying this would be: Floor intentionally devoid of light.* * *
Darkness is the lack of visible light. In darkness, no photons reach the photoreceptors in your eyes. Darkness is an absence, a nothing. Contemplating this fact when you find yourself in complete darkness can result in tremors of wonder and terror. This
—you may find yourself thinking, as I have—this is what nothing is like
Those of us who are sighted often move through the world while operating, not unreasonably, under the assumption that when we see, we perceive objects. In fact, we perceive energy. We perceive an object when light—which is energy—is scattered by the object’s surface. Yes, an object can appear to be dark, but this happens only when it devours light, acting as a perfect absorber.* * *
In October of 1983 artist James Turrell’s installation Pleiades
opened at Pittsburgh’s Mattress Factory Museum. This would become the first work in Turrell’s “Dark Spaces.” Turrell’s artworks often incorporate precise projections and apertures of light; many of them, as a cursory image search will reveal, create shapes and spaces awash with brilliant neon colors. The “Dark Spaces,” on the other hand, are rooms enshrouded in what seems to be impossible darkness. They are difficult, if not impossible, to photograph. And though they cannot be viewed in a catalogue, to visit these works in a gallery can seem counterintuitive. What could one glean from a dark room that one hasn’t already found behind closed eyelids? Isn’t darkness a phenomenon we’ve already experienced?* * *
From an early age I have observed translucent specks gliding through my field of vision, a phenomenon that most people call floaters. These shadows—which appear sometimes like tiny threads and at others times like flakes of snow—have come and gone over the years. I am nearly thirty when a doctor explains to me that this can be a result of gravity slowly pulling the specks down below my line of sight, only to later have my eye’s movement re-agitate its vitreous inner fluid. This agitation sends the particles once again into my field of vision. Particles?
I ask, Particles of what?
She tells me that floaters are actually, literally, bits of dust trapped inside the gel of my eye. I am skeptical. How did the dust get there?
I ask her. It’s been in there since your eyes were being formed,
I learn later that these specks are not dust, per se, but rather tiny particles of my own insides. As we form in the womb, our eyes are preceded by a large blood vessel. By the time we are born, this vessel is no longer needed. So it breaks apart. But its fragments remain in the eye for life, casting shadows on our retinae when the light catches them. As we age, the jelly in our eyeballs gets stringier, too, and microscopic bits of other eye tissues can scatter into the vitreous. For many of us, these physical changes appear as still more shadows. Sometimes they might appear as cobwebs.
Typically, the act of seeing our own insides is a dangerous prospect. Blood and tissue signify a wound or pathological aberration. But with normal floaters, these parts of us that usually indicate great physical risk are harmless. Strands of vitreous, bits of blood vessel—we try to ignore them. And in doing so we fail to notice one of the few ways that we, with our naked eyes, can see what we’re made of, these parts of our being that have been with us since before we were done being formed.
Sometimes, after waking—before retrieving the prescription glasses I use to help my eyes correctly focus—I’ll stare through the partially open window blinds in my bedroom, trying to catch sight of my floaters. I can find them best on sunny days, when my windows are brightly backlit. I search for the shadows in my eyes because they are beautiful. My windows shimmer like the surface of water.* * *
On a cloudy but bright afternoon, flurries multiplying in the early hours of a late-winter snowstorm, I step from the elevator onto the second floor of the Mattress Factory Museum. There are only three works on this floor, all of them by Turrell. How to Enjoy the Artwork of James Turrell
, I read in the dim light, from the informational pamphlet:
1. Know that it is dark.
2. Keep cellphones and flashlights off.
3. Before entering Pleiades (the darkest piece), call out before going up the ramp.
4. Use handrails in Pleiades.
5. There are only two chairs in Pleiades. Please wait your turn.
6. Be patient. It may take your eyes up to 20 minutes to adjust.
I edge around the nearest corner. Hello?
I call ahead of me. We’re up here
, a voice echoes back. I follow the rules and wait my turn. From this location I can clearly hear the darkened conversation of the other visitors. Did you see it?
I hear one ask the other.
Uncomfortable as an uninvited eavesdropper, I return to the area by the elevator. I grow unsure, however, of whether this is the best place to wait. Rule 6 says my eyes will take 20 minutes to adjust. Should I assume, then, if I remain here near the light, that this adjustment will take longer? How much longer? The informational pamphlet does not address this. I want to guarantee that I will see it
. So I decide to lurk, quiet and alone, in a darker corner.* * *
Humans do not technically have night vision, though our eyes can adjust to a certain degree as we move from light to darkness. This phenomenon is known as dark adaptation
. Lingering in dark corners, as opposed to staring at bright light, will not improve your night vision, though it may allow dark adaptation to occur faster. This is because the rods in our eyes—the photoreceptors in our retinae that are most sensitive to light—take time to adapt to changes in luminousness. They increase their sensitivity in a dim environment; our pupils expand. The human eye accommodates more than a million-fold change in intensity of light between a sunny day and a starlit night.* * *
For the sighted, light is the central mode through which we orient ourselves. Moving slowly and carefully up the ramp on the second floor of the Mattress Factory, I have no light to guide me. Even with my eyes wide open, I am in what feels like the darkest dark I have experienced. The incline seems steep and vertiginous. I am forced to use my hands for balance, grasping handrails, searching the carpeted wall for its terminal corner. When I arrive at the end of the ramp, the space—still without light—seems to somehow open.
Recalling that the map near the elevator depicted a rectangular platform with two chairs, I turn from left to right with my arms outstretched, trying to find them. I feel unsteady, precarious—as though I am on a cliff at high elevation, the abyssal edge of which I cannot see over. For a moment I am afraid. Then my fingers find a waist-high barrier in front of me, an assurance that I will not accidentally fall forward. I sit and begin to regain my balance. I clear my throat and hear an echo. Shrouded in darkness, I notice that my hair smells of breakfast’s bacon. I recall the adage that when we are deprived of one sense, the rest become stronger.
As I gaze ahead, a field of visual dust seems to shimmer before me like static. It is as though I am seeing phosphenes, the points of light that dance behind my closed eyelids when pressing my fingers to them. But here my eyes are wide open, and these visions seem brighter somehow, more present. Bluish spots arise and fade over and over from my visual field. What am I seeing?* * *
The phenomenon known as afterimage
refers to lingering visions that result from chemical changes in the retina as it responds to light and darkness. As in the way a camera makes a picture by exposing parts of film to light, our retinae are marked temporarily in the places where light has fallen upon them. When we see an afterimage, we are not seeing an object. In fact, we are not seeing at all. Perhaps we instead perceive a memory of seeing; or perhaps we perceive an illusion.* * *
Light and clarity are in many ways synonymous. Light allows us to see the surfaces of things, the edges. Transparence is the physical property of allowing light to pass through a surface without becoming scattered. Figuratively, transparency means honesty, truthfulness. Light has become idiomatic. See?
we often say, meaning, Understand?
—to shed light on, meaning: to make clear.
—a trick of the light, meaning: to see a thing that wasn’t there.
—without a shadow of a doubt, meaning: I am certain.
From my perch at the top of the ramp and around its corner, I hear the chime of the elevator about to open its doors. A woman speaks loudly to her companion. Oh!
she says with surprise, there’s nothing on this floor.
She does not see the map ahead of her. I hear the elevator doors close. Their voices disappear.* * *
Pleiades is the name of a star cluster that is one of the most easily visible to the naked eye from Earth. We can see only a handful of Pleiades’ hundreds of stars; the cluster is nevertheless conspicuous. It appears as part of the constellation Taurus, which can be found by drawing a line to the right through the three stars of Orion’s Belt. Here, you come to a V-shaped pattern with a bright star in its midst. Pleiades is also said to be recognizable by its electric blue haze, the result of very fine dust left behind from the formation of the cluster.* * *
I have no way of knowing how long I have been sitting in the dark. My visual static has grown quiet. As in a meditation, where to notice the unrest inside of you is to vanquish it, the texture of the field before me has grown smoother, more even. I can now perceive a depth to the room, one not nearly as spacious as I had imagined. I feel the presence of the partition in front of me. At times I sense a kind of blueness or grayness glowing far ahead. Light is not so much something that reveals as it is itself the revelation,
James Turrell has said. What is it
then? In Pleiades
the darkness unveils no object, no representation beyond perception itself; this oft-taken-for-granted experience becomes wondrous. Photons—very few of them—manage their way around corners, up a ramp, and into a cavern. My eyes adjust and adjust, opening and adapting, struggling to perceive them. How much of the ephemeral glow—of any it
that might be perceived—is measurable energy? And how much of perception is constructed within? Clarity here, Turrell reveals, is like an asymptote that cannot reach its axis, with never enough light to be certain.