Studio visits and commissions from visionary talents, with insider coverage of the art calendar’s premier events

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September 23, 2014

James Turrell: Gathered Sky

The Preeminent Artist Restores Light in a Beijing Qing Dynasty Temple

An introspective James Turrell invites you to surrender under the immateriality of light with “Gathered Sky,” a spellbinding permanent installation in Beijing’s Temple Hotel. Three decades after turning the Roden Crater, an extinct volcano in Arizona, into a celestial work of art that was recently exhibited at the Guggenheim and Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), the American artist walks through the making of his first-ever commission in China. “Light is intangible, so I thought it was the perfect theme for a former Buddhist temple,” says Belgian entrepreneur Juan van Wassenhove, who founded the hotel with film producers-turned-hoteliers Li Chow and Lin Fan. “I have seen it touch people's emotions in a profound way.” Rejecting art’s obsession with the object or the image, Turrell’s work brings the sky to human reach, while the interplay of artificial light acts as an optical hallucinogenic. An avid collector of contemporary art, Van Wassenhove hopes for the 600-year-old space to become “a living museum,” with “Gathered Sky” currently joined by an exhibition of Robert Doisneau photographs. As for what he’d like one of the artist’s few works open to the public to evoke in visitors? “Calm, tranquility, a slower pace of life and extraordinary beauty.”

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Alex Prager: Crowd Pleaser

Get Lost in the Photographer’s Retro-Styled Studio on the Occasion of Her First Museum Show

“There's something strange about the rift between reality and fiction,” says LA-born photographer and filmmaker Alex Prager of her work that sees her play dress-up with her sister and muse Vanessa in her Silver Lake studio. Inspired by Prager’s cinematic images, director Arnaud Uyttenhove translated them into a playful portrait, juxtaposing her color-saturated archive with still lifes of vintage costumes and props. Following bouts of agoraphobia, the MoMA 2010 New Photography artist began to explore the loneliness and alienation that crowds can provoke, coating her images’ dark mood with a saccharine veneer. “I'm interested in creating a world for these characters to live in,” explains Prager, whose work is part of collections at the Whitney Museum in New York and Moderna Museet in Stockholm. For her latest series Face in the Crowd, exhibited at her first solo museum show at Corcoran Gallery in Washington, DC, the photographer channeled the voyeuristic gaze previously employed by Cindy Sherman and Nan Goldin through the lens of 21st-century surveillance paranoia and post-Facebook isolation. “I want there to be a sense that something isn't quite right,” adds Prager, whose show includes a self-directed film with the all-American actress Elizabeth Banks. “Is it real or is it fake?” Frequently injecting her series with a noirish mood that brings to mind the psychologically haunting clichés of Hitchcock, as well as pioneers such as William Eggleston, Weegee or Martin Parr, Prager’s portraits blur the boundaries between the real and the surreal, the immediate and the staged, the contemporary and the nostalgic.

Which emotions do you associate with crowds?
Alex Prager:
Anxiety, boredom, fear, terror, frustration, curiosity, strong interest, warmth.

Unlike Eggleston, who captures the fleeting moment, your images are staged.
By staging them, I can create an emptiness or flatness that wouldn't otherwise be there. I am not interested in taking pictures of real crowds.

How does cinema inspire you?
The production aspect is really important to being able to make my work. I'll see shots in old movies and think, wow, I didn't know you could do that. I guess the thing about movies is that everything is possible. Knowing that opens a lot of doors in the imagination that wouldn't otherwise be there.

Face in the Crowd at Corcoran Gallery, Washington, DC runs through March 9, 2014.

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Weekend in Gstaad: A Study in Snow

Our Spotlight on Switzerland Continues with New Alpine-Inspired Works by Christian Marclay, Olivier Mosset and Roman Signer

Continuing our high-altitude stint at Elevation 1049, Swiss photographer and ECAL student Benoît Jeannet captures the Swiss art summit and the landscape that inspired it. “Gstaad is a peculiar place where Switzerland offers a real view of its economical power,” explains Jeannet. “Everything’s well taken care of, clean and luxurious—the town is a kind of showroom.” As a counterpoint to the expensive hotels, groomed ski runs, designer boutiques and celebrity sightings, the artists have tried to engage with the geography of the area, installing artwork that embraces not only its peaks, but also issues like climate change and inequality. “All the works are engaging in very distinct ways,” says Neville Wakefield, who curated the site-specific exhibition with his partner, the artist Olympia Scarry. “Ugo Rondinone’s tower, for example, sang its single blue note into the landscape, but its presence could be felt everywhere.” London-based artist Christian Marclay took his inspiration from an unexpected source: Bollywood. For decades, Indian directors have come to Switzerland to film elaborate dream sequences in which the romantic leads typically frolic on hillsides, covered in snow or buttercups: his 17-minute montage piece, “Bollywood Goes to Gstaad,” is being shown in a cable car that travels halfway up the Gondelbahn Glacier.

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