Il(Lumina)ting Marfa

Artist and writer Nathaniel Stern meditates on Jason Ting's Lumina against the backdrop of Marfa's art-rich history and natural wonders.
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Photo of Lumina taken by Jason Ting. Courtesy of Jason Ting

Il(Lumina)ting Marfa

Artist and writer Nathaniel Stern meditates on Jason Ting's
Lumina against the backdrop of Marfa's art-rich history and natural wonders.

Six glowing, slowly gradating tubes—each approximately the size of a yoga mat—are arranged on the ground like an art–tech campfire in the corner of the Saint George Hall in Marfa, Texas. Try imagining a bed of soft, cylindrical body-sized pillows, each engulfed by a new color about once per second. But between each focused re-encapsulation, there is a gradient animation, a soft push of hue, saturation and value, which somehow manages to pull us in to an intensity of moving light, color and shadow.

It is like the gentle caress of a rainbow, a real one—delicate and translucent, rainy and blurry; not that bullshit we see in cartoons—reaching out to us, inviting us for a prolonged moment of felt and amplified sensation. 

And Lumina is not a solo experience. There are seats on either side of Jason Ting's mesmerizing sculpture, where pairs of viewers warm their aesthetic insides, occasionally smiling, no, marveling at one another while their shared reflection induces more and more wonder.

For years, Ting has worked on screen-based generative art and digital drawings. As part of this physical instantiation, he explains that “every minute, a randomized combination of 15 different generative animations and 10 color palettes creates scenes that range from vibrant rainbow portals to rolling blue-gold waves.” Each tube’s low-resolution image (only 48 pixels per row) is smoothed by diffusing sheets of plastic and a color interpolation algorithm, turning six, 3-dimensional animated hue circles into a public and paired meditation.

Photo courtesy of Art Blocks by Vincent Roazzi, Jr.

Many of the onlookers in Marfa cited Marina Abramović’s 2010 performance piece, The Artist Is Present, where simply sitting in the gaze of another—here, in the light of Ting's kinetic sculpture—was intensely felt in its public/private paradox. But Ting’s Lumina is more than a singular partnership; it adds another person, sure, but also technology, light, plastic and other materials into its mix. This does not even include the frenetic connotations and mythos surrounding Art Blocks, Marfa and more. Lumina is more than a light in a dark corner amidst the carnivalesque atmosphere of Marfa to practice meditation; it is more than an oasis of digitally-analogous beauty in a sea of people more oriented towards pixels. It is a celebration yet inversion of Ting’s many predecessors, some of whom are inherently connected to both Marfa and Texas.

Long before Marfa gained 50% of its core population with the Art Blocks weekend, it was already known as a space for art and culture, albeit a small and remote one. Its legacy is staggering and includes the early filming of James Dean’s Giant as well as natural phenomenon like the Marfa Lights (like Northern, but Texan) and the anti-light pollution street lamps they inspired. It also includes Prada Marfa, a permanent sculpture that mimics a real storefront, complete with donated merch from the brand. Most critically, it includes Chinati, Donald Judd’s military base turned permanent museum of (mostly) minimalist sculpture from a range of artists.

It is precisely against the backdrop of this rich history, these natural and man-made occurrences and alongside the on-chain generative art movement, that make Jason Ting’s Lumina so powerful. 

James Turrell. Meeting. 1980–86/2016. Light and space. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Mark and Lauren Booth in honor of the 40th anniversary of MoMA PS1Photo by Pablo Enriquez, photo taken from PS1 site

My first thought, upon gazing on Ting’s physical version of his light-based work, was of James Turrell, specifically his Skyspaces. I had recently spent a fair amount of time with one, Meeting, at MoMA’s PS 1 in New York. The other, The Color Inside, is relatively nearby at the University of Texas at Austin. I remember first sitting in Turrell’s tiny “theater” of sorts, gazing up at what seemed to be a screen with the most subtle and beautiful hues of blue and white I had ever seen portrayed. Of course, it was not a screen; it was the sky itself, viewed through a rectangular hole in the ceiling. Turrell’s genius, in part, is that he merely provides an unobstructed view of the sky as a work of art.

In this, he also defines the very nature of art: to frame and amplify what is, so as to ask what could be.

His media—light and space—are arguably the same media for all forms of art, for all of perception and, thus, action. Bluntly, to experience it is perception-altering. Beyond the prolonged moment of active observation, every time you look at the sky and continue to marvel at what is there to experience, you give yourself over to it.

Worthy of mention again are the Marfa Lights. These are seemingly sourceless colors and values that dance, split, merge, disappear and reappear on the horizon at night. Whether your explanations are scientific or paranormal (I lean heavily toward the former), it is still a form of magic.

Ting takes both the Marfa Lights and Turrell’s sculptures but flips our relationship to them. Rather than staring off into the sky, pondering our connections to nature and beauty, our small size and our insignificance, we look down at human-made tubes and electronics. We wonder at the communities and partnerships that led to our engagements with electrons and silicon to co-produce another kind of beauty. We—a collective "we"—in a shared experience and practice with others, with nature, with matter and concepts and things, with light and electricity and more, made this possible, made it happen. We peer down into the light, the screen, the fire, the network; we look at each other and our human and non-human interconnectedness and…

It, too, is wondrous.

Chinati, which I also visited for the first time while in Marfa in the fall of 2023, was one of the most profound art experiences of my life. Donald Judd made large minimalist sculptures on trails more than three-quarters of a mile long. It takes several buildings to show off one hundred aluminum variations of a cuboid (a rectangular “cube”), each weighing a ton. Judd also gave over scores of structures for other artists to explore the mantra, “Art in Context.” That phrase was meaningless to me until I stood in front of his many similar-but-different squares upon squares (the cuboids, the tile floors, the windows and panes, the light and shadow, the ceiling and beams and columns). I suddenly felt my own awareness—and yes, that is an intended doubling of phrases—of every single thing around me. It was a heightened attention—a tension—to every crack and fissure, every bug, every body and what they might mean, be or do.

100 untitled works in mill aluminum CC-Licensed photo courtesy of JWSherman

Roni Horn's Things That Happen Again—two identical copper truncated cones, 35 inches long, tapering from a diameter of 17 inches to 12 inches—baffled and excited me even more. Appearing as floating circles as you enter the room, they then stretch and morph on approach, reflecting cracks, critters and bending light. They made me all too aware of myself, my physicality and others in the space.

I had to contrapuntally ask, "Do our bodies go missing in front of our screens? Does the world disappear when I gaze at and through the window of my laptop?" No, of course not, as Ting reminds us. Ting's “Art in Context” is precisely at the nerd-fest nexus of us phone and laptop junkies, re-membering (that is, embodying again) for us, ourselves and each other, face to face, at his digital 🔥.

But it is Dan Flavin’s untitled, a multi-building Marfa project at Chinati that brings Ting’s Lumina into sharp focus. Each of Flavin’s large-scale works, in colored fluorescent light across six spaces, calls attention to… oh, so much. We begin by seeing tilted lights that shed complementary colors across separate corridors, creating caves of purple, yellow and green. The inverse is just on the other side. We can see each other and the inverted-light spaces through cage-like bars, the never-blending lights across their electronic barriers. We, again, become all too aware of ourselves. With the lights at human-scale, we are neither too small nor too large. We are our own size for a change.

Flavin and me (Nathaniel Stern); photo by Duane King

Seriously playful and playfully serious, Flavin makes us all too aware of how much can be done with light, space, everyday objects and each other. It is a moving experience that literally moves us—across corridors, into and around objects, up and down paths, into and out of sight, vision, perception, affect and more. I do not say this idly: My feelings at Chinati, while nameless (more a saturation of that which is felt, than a specific emotion), were as vibrant as the colors Flavin presented.

Ting inverts Flavin’s work as well. With Flavin, we walk the corridors of discovery, look at the walls and halls and how the lights impact everything around them. Ting thought pulls us into a smaller space, sitting down, facing the floor and each other.

Instead of asking us to move, Lumina does the moving for us with its animations, yet it moves us all the same.

And in this smaller frame, it is more of an intimate pairing. We are aware of Lumina and each other, more so than our surroundings. This is not (just) a sculpture, or a space or a broadcast pretending to be a conversation (like Twitter or Facebook). It is a microcosm of interconnectedness, a mini dialogue between and with peers, within a greater network that this crowd is of course all too aware of.

Morgan Obenreder and Michael Gazin with Lumina, Photo by Nathaniel Stern

Ting directly cites shared experiences like “in a car on a long road trip, a socially-distanced walk in the park, huddling around a fireplace,” and calls Lumina’s light “a proxy for connection.” But more than a proxy, it can be a connection itself. It in fact works to amplify all the connections; it brings forth the very category of “connectivity.” 

Lumina succeeds in folding us in, rolling us out and having us look, listen, feel, touch and sense our very togetherness. It is a meditation on, and reflection of, the smaller and more care-full moments in IRL-digital life.


Nathaniel Stern is an artist and writer who has been producing, exhibiting, teaching and writing about art + technology for more than 25 years. His work was included in Christiane Paul's A Companion to Digital Art. His project, STILL MOVING, with Sasha Stiles is on Art Blocks.