Features

A Quick Look at James Turrell, the 72-Year-Old Artist Who Inspired Drake's "Hotline Bling" Video

Behind The Lens

By Moya Lothian-McLean

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A still of James Turell

*UPDATE - James Turrell's lawyer has since emailed Noisey with the following statement from Turrell: "While I am truly flattered to learn that Drake f*cks with me, I nevertheless wish to make clear that neither I nor any of my woes was involved in any way in the making of the Hotline Bling video.” Read our interview with the "Hotline Bling" creator Director X right here.

Somewhat at odds with his internet reputation as a basic bitch, Drake likes to present himself as a connoisseur of the finer things. We’re used to seeing gourmet dining and supernaturally attractive women plastered all over his social media presence but it’s easy to overlook his penchant for startlingly innovative contemporary art. Last January’s visit to American artist James Turrell’s retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art saw him posting a series of contemplative selfies on Instagram while bathed in the balmy neon glow cast by Turrell’s unmistakeable light installations. “Lost” he captioned one, while another, seen below, was tantalisingly accompanied by a promise of future collaborations: “Turrell x OVO”. 

22 months on, we’re finally harvesting the fruits of what looks like a link-up between the "mad scientist of postminimalism" and Aubrey Graham. The visuals for “Hotline Bling”, a viral hit that’s mutated into Drake’s biggest smash since 2009, dropped last night and although Drizzy’s dad dancing draws the eye, most intriguing are the various "ganzfields" he’s selected to serve as a backdrop while he hams it up for the camera. Ostensibly, these illuminated sets are as deceptively basic as the song itself. Suddenly however, you realise you’re hypnotised. Subtle luminosity works its magic in tandem with that famously decelerated Cha-Cha beat and, bang, Drake’s reeled you in again. But this time he’s had assistance from the brilliant mind of an artist who’s been exploding our narrow conceptions of perception before Baby Drake was even a glimmer in his mother’s eye.

The Light Inside by James Turell, via Ed Schipul
A still from "Hotline Bling"

“Light,” Turrell said in a 2014 interview, “connects the cosmic to the plain everyday existence that we try to live in.” It’s a statement he’s been attempting to demonstrate to the rest of the world for the past 49 years, during which time he’s been both an advisor to NASA and a convict, thanks to his efforts to help young men avoid Vietnam drafts in 1966. Despite his name ringing few bells for the uninitiated, Turrell is akin to a deity in art circles, lauded for his mind-bending skyscapes and sensory manipulation - Guardian writer Jonathan Jones claimed to have experienced a "mental orgasm" after visiting the 2010 Bindu Shards exhibition in London. No word on whether Drake achieved quite the same dizzying heights of pleasure but the consensus seems to be the same: Turrell’s work transports your mind beyond the banalities of the norm through expansive psychedelic optical works. I mean, this is a guy whose life’s work has been to transform a lonely crater located in the Arizonia desert into a subterranean netherworld that, at one point, creates shadows of visitors by harnessing light reflected from the surface of Venus. Turrell expands the possibility of art to truly galactic proportions. Perfect stuff for rap videos, right?


Turrell’s current retrospective exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia
A still from "Hotline Bling"

James Turrell and Drake are unlikely collaborators; a revered septuagenarian renowned for his transcendent artwork and a 28 year old rapper who has recently been heralded as the ‘King of Memes’. But Turrell’s influence has resulted in a slice of pop culture that offers us something a little outside of the lightbox, and when the Charlie Brown dubbed clips die down, Drake’s huge audience will be looking at other aspects of “Hotline Bling” to analyse, dissect and disseminate. And they just might discover the many worlds of James Turrell in the process.

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