From Kusama to Turrell, 9 Artists Who Made Perfect Spaces for Meditation

Mitch Sawyer
Jul 22, 2017 12:00PM

It’s a safe bet that anyone who’s spent a prolonged amount of time looking at a painting—or failing that, can recall the Seurat scene from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off—can recognize the meditative power of art. But several artists have taken this idea further, building entire environments meant to help viewers experience deep serenity or contemplation. From giant saltwater tanks to secluded Appalachian outposts, these nine works provide space to guide in focused meditation.

Yayoi Kusama, Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity, 2009

For Kusama, artmaking has been a lifelong form of therapy. Since childhood, she’s experienced recurring hallucinations of being consumed in unending fields of polka dots or bright flashes of light. To manage these anxieties, she transfers them to her hypnotic artworks. This meditative practice may explain her works’ frequent references to ego death—the complete loss of a sense of self—a concept tied equally to Zen buddhism as to psychedelia, which influenced her early career. Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity, completed more than four decades after her first infinity room, immerses the viewer in a field of suspended lanterns, infinitely reflected by mirrored walls and a reflecting pool below. The lanterns recall tōrō nagashi, a ceremony on the final day of the Buddhist Obon festival, in which paper lanterns are floated on rivers in reverence of the dead.

Carsten Höller, Giant Psycho Tank, 1999

Carsten Höller, Giant Psycho Tank, 1999. Courtesy of the New Museum.


That Höller got his start as a scientist—an entomologist, specifically—explains the clinical appearance of this large sensory deprivation chamber’s polypropylene walls. But the work’s intended effect leans spiritual. Visitors to Höller’s 2011–12 “Experience” show at the New Museum were encouraged to disrobe and float in a shallow pool of an epsom salt solution. The salt holds the viewer in perfect equilibrium as body-temperature water drowns out all outside sensation. Höller has said the tank is meant to induce such extreme relaxation that visitors begin to have an out-of-body experience. However, as some critics have pointed out, when laying naked in the middle of a crowded museum, separating yourself from the present moment is easier said than done.

La Monte Young & Marian Zazeela, Dream House, 1993

La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela, Dream House, on Church Street, New York. Photo by Marian Zazeela, courtesy Dia Art Foundation.

Hidden away in an seemingly normal TriBeCa apartment, Dream House is a collaborative sound and light environment created by drone composer Young and neon light artist Zazeela. Inside, hazy magenta light casts on white walls, while Young’s procedurally generated low frequencies play over speakers. Two of Zazeela’s sculptural installations play with the light environment in interesting ways—either casting a glow, as with the neon Dream House Variation I (1989), or shadow, as with the rippled surface of Ruine Window (1992). Both Young’s and Zazeela’s bodies of work entertain the idea of prolonged listening or viewing, so it makes sense that visitors to Dream House should linger. The space, carpet-lined and strewn with pillows, invites focused reflection (or a power nap).

Katie Paterson, Hollow, 2016

Katie Paterson, Hollow, 2016. © Katie Paterson. Courtesy of James Cohan, New York.

From the outside, Paterson’s Hollow appears deceptively simple—a few posts of unfinished wood forming a hut on the grounds of Bristol’s Royal Fort Gardens. Go inside, however, and you find yourself in a cavernous forest of 10,000 pillars, each gathered from a different variety of tree—from the common to the incredibly historic. Among this collection of samples of trees, one will find traces of Methuselah, the 4,800-year-old bristlecone pine (said to be the world’s oldest tree), and the ginkgo that survived the bombing of Hiroshima. The isolated enclosure provides respite from the open gardens, while offering a humbling reminder of the vast natural history represented in the piece’s walls.

Miya Ando, 8 Fold Path, 2009

Miya Ando, 8 Fold Path, 2009. Courtesy of the artist.

Ando describes her works as “studies in nothingness.” Raised partly in a secluded Buddhist temple in Okayama, Japan, she says her spiritual practice informs her exploration of simplicity and reduction. In 2009, Ando donated her work 8 Fold Path to the Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society in Los Angeles. The work comprises a grid of four steel plates shaded by a thin application of patina. 8 Fold Path serves as a reminder of the dharma wheel—a visual representation of Buddhism’s noble eightfold path—for the L.A. space’s practitioners, who meditate facing the pedestal above which the work hangs.

Alex Reed, Quiet House, 1942

Alex Reed, Quiet House (memorial to Mark Dreier), Lake Eden Campus, Black Mountain College, Black Mountain College Records. Courtesy of Western Regional Archives.

On October 8, 1941, Mark Dreier, nine-year-old son of Black Mountain College co-founder Ted Dreier, was killed in a car accident. The next fall, Reed, teaching assistant at the time to Josef Albers, began building Quiet House on the college grounds to memorialize Mark. Reed handled almost every aspect of the construction himself, from drafting the design to gathering stone and chopping wood. The house—situated in the forested Blue Ridge Mountains and adjacent to the shore of Lake Eden—served as a conduit for quiet reflection, as well as a venue for weddings and other celebrations until the college closed in 1957. Though the building has been converted into a dormitory for a boys’ summer camp, the original Quiet House has been preserved through the photography of Black Mountain residents Hazel Larsen Archer and Robert Rauschenberg.

Robert Irwin, untitled (dawn to dusk), 2016

Robert Irwin, untitled (dawn to dusk), installation exterior, 2016. ©2016 Philipp Scholz Rittermann, courtesy of the Chinati Foundation. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

The latest site-specific work to be added to Marfa, Texas’s Chinati Foundation, Irwin’s installation is composed of a passage of partially-enclosed concrete antechambers, which surround an outdoor courtyard. Inside, the open ceilings and windows of the building not only recall the ruins of the World War II-era military hospital that once stood in its place, but also serve to cast sunlight through a series of black and white scrims—an experimentation with light in Irwin’s typical fashion. Irwin has referred to his work as a “quiet distillation” of its natural surroundings. Visitors to the installation are offered a conduit to reflect on the vast stillness of the West Texas desert.

Doug Wheeler, PSAD Synthetic Desert III, 1971

Installation view of “Doug Wheeler: PSAD Synthetic Desert III,” Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, March 24-August 2, 2017. Photo by David Heald. © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.

In 2017, the Guggenheim opened its doors to a unique seventh-floor installation. A suspended platform and walls lined with sound-proofing material comprise Wheeler’s Synthetic Desert, a self-contained semi-anechoic chamber. Visitors to the installation can snag a 10-minute session in the room on a first-come-first-served basis. Wheeler—who grew up in the Arizona desert—has compared the chamber’s heavy silence to the stillness of the desert landscape, where “you can’t tell a human voice from a car door closing or an eagle screaming more than a mile up.”

James Turrell, Bindu Shards, 2010

James Turrell
Bindu Shards, 2010

From the outside, Bindu Shards may resemble concept art for an Apollo module, but inside, the room is unearthly in an entirely different sense. With the “Perceptual Cells” series, to which this work belongs, Turrell sought to induce what he called “behind-the-eye seeing.” To view the piece, visitors lie on a narrow bed, and an assistant slides them into the cell as if they were entering an MRI scanner. Inside, they are enveloped in a field of soft light. An assistant cycles through certain light cycles that occupy the field of vision. Turrell says the overwhelming stimulation is meant to induce theta brain waves, which occur naturally during focused meditation or before sleep.  

Mitch Sawyer