Trip Report : Vegas Lights

A secret installation, and how to check it out for yourself

I was sure I would never go to Las Vegas. It was somewhere down below active war-zones and Florida retirement communities on my list of places to visit. So when I had relatives in town who were adamant about making a stop there, I tried everything to get out of it. And nothing worked.

While I moped about the prospect of Vegas, a friend told me that when he was similarly shanghai’d into a Vegas trip, there was one thing that made the whole thing worth it: a Turrell installation hidden on the 4th floor of the enormous Louis Vuitton store on the Strip.

Skyspace, Piz Uter, photo courtesty Kamahele

James Turrell is an artist who uses light and framing to create places that enhance your perception of the world, or sometimes confuse it. His “sky spaces” are carefully painted and lit rooms with large apertures in the roof that make the sky seem to be very close, very low, and almost flat. He also has a series of featureless spheroid rooms called Ganzfeld chambers which are lit in a very even way so as to completely destroy any visual cues about the size and shape of the room. Your brain receives only a solid field of colored light, and in its desperation to make some sense out of the input, starts to hallucinate—this is the Ganzfeld effect for which the chambers are named. You can experience a version of it with a halved ping-pong ball over each eye and a diffuse light source (highly recommended!)

The installation in the Louis Vuitton store in Vegas is the largest Ganzfeld chamber Turrell has built. Seeing it totally made the rest of Vegas worth it. Here’s how it works:

You call a few weeks ahead and make a reservation, which is free but required. You can have up to 6 people in your party, no children under 12. You show up at the Louis Vuitton store, located in a mostly empty luxury mall. A sales clerk gets you an Evian, and shows you some of the art on the store floor.

You get in an elevator, and come out in a dimly lit room on the 4th floor, walls all black. The clerk leaves, and two women dressed in all white give everyone in your party a 3 page liability waiver that you initial in several places.

After a quick bit of background on the piece, which is called Akhob, you’re led into a room with a black concentric staircase leading up to what appears to be a patch of light projected on the white wall. You put on your cleanroom booties to avoid smudging the floors of the installation, and walk up the stairs towards the patch of light, which turns out to be a actually be portal into the installation’s first chamber.

Antechamber, photo courtesy Louis Vuitton

I’m usually impatient with descriptions that claim to be inadequate to the task of actually describing, or articles that refuse to show pictures on the ground that they couldn’t possibly do justice to the pictured object, but in this case, I sympathize. The beauty of Akhob comes from the overwhelming and hallucinatory effect it has on you, which is not an easy thing to describe, and is different depending on where in the installation you stand.

In my case, I walked through the the first inner chamber, which has visible corners and a ceiling, into the second chamber. Here was a large room with no corners and a six-foot cliff in the front of the room that is almost totally invisible in the even pinkish lighting. There is an alarm that’s triggered if you get to close to the edge, and one of the women-in-white stands slightly in front of the cliff so you have an idea of where to stop.

I stood half a foot back from the edge and stared out into the space beyond the drop off. Since this Gantzfeld gets so little traffic compared to the ones in big museums, the surface beyond the drop off was entirely perfect. No smudges, fire sprinklers, or vents marred its surface, and it appeared to go on forever.

Akhob, photo courtesy Louis Vuitton

The colors began to change. The transition from a light pink to a deep red was so intense I broke out into a grin. When the expanse turned a really deep blue it instantly reminded me of sitting as a kid by the deep-sea tank of an aquarium, completely at peace.

Then I started seeing things. At first, blotches on the field of blue. Then the blotches began to move like amoeba. Wave after wave of light and dark swept over the expanse. I blinked, and a yellow-orange afterimage appeared in front of me: hundreds of spinning wheels. I opened my eyes again, and the blotches and waves continued. They got more intense with every color change, and less intense if I looked down at my feet, or over at the curator standing at the edge of the drop off.

I’ve never gotten so much as a Magic Eye painting to work, so the intensity of the Akhob visuals was a surprise. After 20 minutes the curators led us back down the stairs, and we left through a dark opening in the stair chamber that led us back to the room with black walls. We were given a guestbook and told that messages left there would be forwarded to the artist.

Makia Pollack, a critic for the Observer whose work I like, panned Turrell’s latest light-based exhibit at the Guggenheim, saying that it “succumbed to the basest impulses of spectacle-tourism-style “relational” art, in which experiencing a physically wowing piece with a crowd is somehow, de facto, worthwhile.”

There was no crowd in Akhob, and the experience of this physically wowing piece was absolutely worthwhile. The surreal setting of the installation and the semi-secrecy that surrounds it just made it cooler. It’s definitely more than just a pretty space, and I’m still thinking about it.

To see for yourself, call (702) 730–3150 and make a reservation. Go alone, or with a small group that can spread out in the space—too many people might mess up the disorienting scale effects of the piece.