In the middle of a multi-day February visit to my father, I was searching the Web for new and interesting things to do in greater Las Vegas on the upcoming road trip that I was planning with Miriam when I happened across a description on Atlas Obscura of a free-to-visit James Turrell light installation atop a Louis Vuitton store entitled Akhob (supposedly an ancient Egyptian word meaning “pure water”). Although Turrell’s works of light have been featured in a number of exhibitions around the country in recent years, I’ve been most familiar with him as one of several artists who have devoted decades out of their lives to the creation and refinement of giant land-based projects paying homage to nature and science in the American West, while innumerable announced completion dates have come and gone. Turrell’s project has involved the reconstruction of Roden Crater, the remnants of a northern Arizona volcano. While the Roden Crater project, like other examples of this particular art form, never seems to be able to be finished, it has been possible to visit at times by those who’ve provided substantial financial support.
I mentioned Akhob to Miriam, who was enthusiastic. According to the Atlas Obscura article, the lead time for tour reservations was at least three weeks, which meant that the first available tour slot would likely be several days after we planned to leave Vegas. I decided to give it a shot anyway. Notwithstanding a poor phone connection, I ended my call to the reservation number at Louis Vuitton having arranged places for us on a tour at 1:30 PM on our last partial day in Vegas. The scheduling wasn’t quite perfect, but the opportunity seemed worth the inconvenience.
Our tour was scheduled for a Thursday, we were arriving in Vegas on a Monday, and the installation was closed on Tuesday and Wednesday, so my vague hope of someone else’s cancellation allowing me to reschedule for an earlier tour was unlikely from the start. However, my reconnaissance visit to the high-end shopping area where the Louis Vuitton store was located (an extension of the Aria Resort and Casino confusingly referred to both as CityCenter and the Shops at Crystals) revealed the existence of additional Turrell light installations in the rooms adjacent to the tram station at the very top of the shopping area. Miriam was pleased. Although it seemed unlikely that she would be allowed to take pictures within Akhob, there would be some of Turrell’s work that she could photograph.
Thursday arrived. We checked out of our lodgings, ate lunch, and parked at the neighboring Cosmopolitan. We made our way again to CityCenter/the Shops at Crystals, where Miriam photographed other artwork, including the tram station Turrell installation. We weren’t sure how much in advance we needed to arrive at Louis Vuitton for our tour, so we arrived what turned out to be needlessly early. After we announced our purpose and were directed to the tour meeting place, we had plenty of time to sit and observe the few people shopping, who I thought looked surprisingly normal given that Miriam had told me that everything in the store cost thousands of dollars.
A few minutes past the scheduled time, our tour guide appeared and introduced herself to us and the other three people on the tour. We would not be taken directly to our destination, but instead spent the next fifteen or twenty minutes hearing the history of Louis Vuitton and its commitment to art and being shown various items in the store to illustrate the history. I didn’t think there was a whole lot of point in the store’s proselytizing us, but went along gamely. Finally, we proceeded to the elevator and pressed the otherwise unlabeled “3” button.
When the elevator door opened at the third floor, our tour guide handed us over to two other female employees who would be our chaperones in the actual installation. Whereas the dark-haired guide had been dressed in black, the chaperones had on nearly identical white outfits of tops, jeans, and sneakers. With the strong aura of reverence and ritual, it was as if I was visiting a shrine or temple, and our guides were priestesses.
The priestesses ushered us into the next anteroom for us to exchange our shoes for white booties and to read and sign multi-page liability waivers. I scanned mine in a perfunctory manner in preparation for initialing and signing it, but as Miriam read hers, she became increasingly alarmed by its litany of potential mishaps. In a moment, she decided to decline the experience and instead wait for me back in the store.
Having returned my waiver form, I climbed the flight of nine steep, curved, black stairs and joined the two priestesses and the three other visitors in the first of two cylindrical chambers. The colored light suffusing the installation was beautiful but somewhat disorienting. We were warned about the easily overlooked step between the two chambers, not to mention the six-foot drop off at the end of the second. Like another unearthly light experience, last year’s solar eclipse, the experience was over too soon, after perhaps 15 minutes, much of which I spent either asking questions (how many light sources were there, where were they located, did the cycle of changing colors repeat and, if so, how long was the complete cycle?) of one of the priestesses or bonding with the blond-haired woman who worked at the Palo Alto gallery representing Turrell. She had had the opportunity to visit Roden Crater four times, accompanying important clients. She in turn seemed impressed that I had at one time worked for Lannan Foundation and invited me to stop by the gallery the next time I was in Palo Alto.
Perhaps I should have been talking less and concentrating more on experiencing being suffused by the light, but the allotted time would still have been nowhere near sufficient (I did have the thought that certain mind-altering substances would likely have enhanced the experience). As we were guided out of the installation, re-exchanged our booties and shoes, and came back down to the first floor in the elevator, the ritualized overtones of the whole event continued to resonate. I found myself grappling with questions similar to those prompted by my visit years ago to Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field—how much is the interaction undermined by the implied elitism? Is there any way of making it more accessible while simultaneously respecting the aesthetic vision and economic considerations of the artist and/or gatekeepers? I appreciate that both natural and human-created beauty offer an opportunity for non-religious (and religious) people to have an experience of the divine, but the implicit or explicit bundling of the experience of beauty with conspicuous consumption spending adds an unpleasant aura to the occasion for me.
When we had arrived at the Grand Canyon earlier in our trip, I was immediately struck by and commented about how I felt yanked out of my sense of selfness by its magnitude. Both spirituality and art aspire to yanking people out of their senses of selfness. I suppose that my pickiness about how I engage with spirituality is analogous to my pickiness about how I do it with art. I was grateful to have had the chance to visit and be immersed in the temple of Akhob, but regretful of the extent to which our society has evolved in ways that require paying homage, if not actual money, to multiple intermediaries for access to great art and its transformative potential.
Photographs from Atlas Obscura.