(revisiting) Irwin, Turrell & Ed Wortz Partnership

A  method that could allow to psychologically sound people to hallucinate is through the use of sensory deprivation chambers. An artist well known for this process is Robert Irwin  along with his partner (for a while)  James Turrell. These artists both looked for more than what a painting could offer; they looked to push the boundaries of art itself, turning their interest towards sensory phenomenon and creating an experience for the viewer, using sunlight, sound and temperature.

Robert Irwin first questioned the frame as a containment, eventually developing his work so that it would appear to be diffused into the background, giving an illusion of a picture with no limits. He noted that aesthetics is not just limited to a frame, but they are of a qualitative realm. Since the subject matter seemed to have been withdrawn completely from art, there was now a more phenomenological realm which seemed to be of a higher importance. He looked to create work that relied upon primary perceptions over intellection, considering his work to be available for everyone and not just the art community. Irwin created artwork for the current moment, for the ‘now’. He strived for an experience that couldn’t be captured by any other form of medium. This meant that the work can allow you to ‘see yourself seeing’. This links his work extensively to Merleau-Ponty’s writings; to be aware of the fact that we live within our own worlds, that we are responsible for our own living, and not simply for our own existence – but to make people aware, even just a little more than the day before of how beautiful the world is.

It was arranged that Irwin, along with James Turrell, were to be joined in partnership with scientist’s Dr Ed Wortz, who had recently received a doctorate in aerospace medicine and had no real interest in art whatsoever. All three men, as different as they were, shared a common interest – of man and his own perceptions of his environment. How were their different disciplines going to collaborate to create something? They decided to explore the use of sensory deprivation and to achieve this they spent periods spanning six to eight hours a day in the tanks at the University of California, Los Angeles, as a vehicle of heightened seeing. Within these chambers, they studied its effects on their senses. The notes from the Irwin-Turrell-Wortz collaborations, and their experiences were later published. They read:

Allowing people to perceive their perceptions- making them aware of their perceptions. We’ve decided to investigate this and make people conscious of their consciousness […]. If we define art as part of the realm of experience, we can assume that after a viewer looks at a piece, he ‘leaves’ with the art, because the ‘art’ has been experienced. We are dealing with the limits of an experience- not, for instance, with the limits of painting. We have chosen that experience out of the realm of experience to be defined as ‘art’ because having this label it is given special attention. Perhaps this is all ‘art’ means – this Frame of Mind’ (Weschler, L., 1982, pg.127).


From these conversations they soon realised that they wished to experiment more within these new realms of their own perceptions they had discovered through the use of a sensory deprivation tank.  This experience relates to the methodology used typically in shamanistic practices in order to find a new way of seeing. This is achieved through isolating the self and the mind for long periods of time. Their research confirmed past testaments to the complexity of our own senses. As a person depends on other sensory inputs when they stay inside the chamber, a sensory shift seems to take place; a person can no longer rely on their primary senses, which in turn seem to be more complex on the return to normality Irwin described his experience:

‘After you came out, […]everything has a kind of aura, that nothing is wholly static, that colour itself emanates a kind of energy. So that what the anechoic chamber was helping us see was the extreme complexity and the richness of our sense of mechanism and how little of it we use most of the time. We edit this severely, in time to see only what we expect to see’ (Wechsler, 1982, pg.129).

Irwin reached a point where he claimed the world was transformed into energy patterns, much like the shamanic state of formless awareness, it gave the world a re-presentation of itself like a second reality. Throughout his career, Irwin used the technique of enduring the suffering of sensory deprivation and self-inflicted isolation to open his mind to things that have been experienced by few others. In the early seventies, Irwin gave up his studio and all his possessions and isolated himself in the desert for days on end, a similar technique Shamans used in a Vision Quest. It was whilst he was alone in Arizona that the sublimity of the desert and its beauty caused the realisation:

‘It was about me, about my identity, my discovery. Whereas all that really mattered… was the places presence. In other words, if I’d taken you out there to a place like that, what you would have perceived is yourself perceiving’ (Irwin, R., 1972, cited in Wechsler, 1982, pg.161


Robert Irwin’s work shows a clear desire for a viewer who encounters his work to change their perceptions on life through a new way of seeing. He invited them to share his shamanistic visions that were suggested through his installations. These phenomenological installations intend to offer a higher consciousness in comparison to our mundane everyday activities. Whilst Irwin’s work is not as obviously disorientating as artists such as Kusama and her ‘Self-Obliteration’, it shows that the disjointedness of a disrupted environment caused by the hallucinations, can be applied within an installation to affect the consciousness of our minds – a new way of seeing a new realm of experience; a new realm of reality.


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