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Sci-Fi Sphere Takes Art Fans on a Trip in London Exhibit: Review

"Dhatu" (2010) by James Turrell. The work is on show at the Gagosian Gallery, 6-24 Britannia St, London until December 10. Source: Gagosian Gallery via Bloomberg Photo credit: Florian Holzherr/Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery, Source: Bolton and Quinn, via Bloomberg

White-coated attendants stand by a white sphere, resembling an early bathyscaphe or a space vehicle from a vintage sci-fi film. At intervals, a hatch in the side opens, a dazed art lover emerges and a fresh one lies down on a stretcher and is slid into the mysterious recesses of the thing.

This is “Bindu Shards” (2010), the most daunting work in an exhibition by the U.S. artist James Turrell (Gagosian Gallery, 6-24 Britannia St., London WC1, through Dec. 10). As a critic, I felt it was my duty to subject myself to this ordeal, and when given a choice between the “hard” and, more relaxing, “soft” version I gulped and went for the tougher option.

What happens after you disappear into the gleaming globe is a powerful experience. It’s like being inside a huge, soft-focus kaleidoscope, surrounded by an ever-changing honeycomb pattern of flickering color, accompanied by electronic sounds. It’s trippy.

Readers may or may not be disappointed to discover that trips into the inner space of “Bindu Shards” are now booked until the end of the exhibition. More successful as a work of art is the other large piece in the show, “Dhatu” (2010), which you can get into (though there is a line). This is a large white chamber with a rectangular opening at one end.

From outside this entrance, it looks -- as Turrell’s works often do -- like a flat, abstract, monochrome painting. Actually, it’s just light and empty space. Once inside you’re confronted at the further end of the pod by another opening -- apparently into infinity. When the color inside changes, so does the apparent color of the room from which you have come. In reality, this is a standard gallery white cube, though as you look out it seems to shift between green and orange.

Sky Obsession

“Dhatu” makes one of Turrell’s basic points: a lot of what we think we’re seeing is the result of what goes on inside our heads. He’s a remarkable artist, whose work blends several traditions, among them the line of transcendental, sky-obsessed painters from Turner to Rothko and the idea of a planetarium or celestial observatory. It would be interesting to see what Turrell would do with the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern.

The Gagosian show is a sign of the ambitious scope of commercial-gallery shows these days; another is “The Clock” by Christian Marclay at White Cube, 25-26 Mason’s Yard, London SW1 (until Nov. 13). This is a colossal video collage in which the artist has fitted together thousands of fragments from feature films of all periods and genres, the common factor in each being that a clock or watch is in shot and the time visible.

Addictive Narrative

With great ingenuity, Marclay has arranged it so that whatever hour is seen on screen is the real time at that moment. The result is addictive. Ensconced in the comfortable seats of a miniature cinema in the basement of White Cube, you’re immersed in an unending narrative.

It’s always a little tense yet never resolved as the footage shifts from black and white to color, from Hitchcock to Woody Allen. Comfortingly, if you’re a chronological obsessive like me, you always know precisely what o’clock it is.

There will be continuous, 24-hour viewing Nov. 4-6 and Nov. 11-13. I didn’t find the experience compelling, but it easily holds your attention for 30 minutes or so, which is more than most video art achieves.

(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. His most recent book is “Man With a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

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