James Turrell’s Skyspace
by Joel Nolan
He had become less interested in the sterile and dull images on the screen and more inspired by the beam of light emanating from the projector with its unhurried particles of dust hanging in the smoky, flickering colors.
On October 19th The University of Texas unveiled its very own James Turrell Skyspace installation perched atop the roof of the new Student Activity Center. Due to the completion of his recent projects and a three-city exhibition Turrell has recently received an exceptional level of national media attention, including a New York Times Magazine cover story and piece on CBS This Morning, both highlighting his project on the campus of Rice University in Houston. James Turrell: A Retrospective explores nearly fifty years of his work and is currently on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art until the spring of 2014. The retrospective was also shown at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City earlier this year. The exhibition includes early geometric light projections, prints and drawings, installations exploring sensory deprivation fields of colored light, and recent two-dimensional work with holograms. One section is devoted to Turrell’s masterwork in process, Roden Crater, a site-specific intervention into the landscape just outside Flagstaff, Arizona. With all the interest focused on other work the construction of his University of Texas project has maintained a relatively low profile which is fitting for its smaller scale and more intimate setting.
Born in Los Angeles in 1943, James Turrell is the son of Archibald and Margaret Turrell, both devout Quakers who did not believe in art alluding to its correlation with vanity. When Turrell was a young boy he recalls his grandmother instructing him how to act at a Quaker meeting: “Go inside and greet the light”. Even at the early age he understood his grandmother meant the inner light, but this statement had a profound effect leading him to meticulously cut tiny holes in the dark shades of his bedroom in order to re-create the stars of the sky during the daylight hours. His father, who was an aeronautical engineer that ran the technical school at the Pasadena Junior College, died when he was only ten years old. Perhaps inspired by his father’s work Turrell worked to obtain his pilot’s license by the age of 16 which would later play a large part in his ‘Ganzfelds’ (German for ‘complete field’) exhibition. Turrell was an independent young boy with strong interests in the sciences and math. He was an eagle scout, an honor student in high school, president of his class and named Pasadena “boy of the year” in 1960.
During his college years Turrell’s interest in light continued to grow and evolve until he finally reached an epiphany while sitting in a dark lecture room watching a slide presentation. He had become less interested in the sterile and dull images on the screen and more inspired by the beam of light emanating from the projector with its unhurried particles of dust hanging in the smoky, flickering colors. In the following weeks Turrell diligently worked on his next installation that involved the use of a blank slide in a high-intensity projector mounted near the ceiling and directed at the opposite bottom corner of the room creating a three-dimensional floating rectangle.
The result was a series of dream-like spaces housing walls of colored light that appeared solid until the viewer was close enough to reach out and try to touch them.
Following the success of his first light installation Turrell decided to lease the Mendota Hotel which was located in what was then a slum of Los Angeles. He painted the windows of the front two rooms of the hotel and meticulously scratched lines in the paint working to allow only small, narrow slits of light to enter the room. Turrell found that he could create patterns and illusions, much as he had with the high-intensity projector. Because the light came from the outside world and there was no machinery in the room, he had created a gallery in which the art was made entirely of light. As his thesis evolved he worked to keep the appearance of the rooms completely bare while filling them with brightly colored or white electric light. Through experimentation Turrell recognized that he could modify the walls to create hidden chambers for the bulbs. Titling these pieces “Shallow Space Constructions” he attempted more than a dozen permutations of this new idea. In some he tucked bulbs along a single edge of the room while in others the entire frame of a wall glowed in brilliant color. The result was a series of dream-like spaces housing walls of colored light that appeared solid until the viewer was close enough to reach out and try to touch them.
By the early 1970s, Turrell was exploring another phenomenon with natural light. Instead of scratching paint on the windows he decided to cut large holes in the walls and ceiling to create a view of the open sky above the old hotel. With the right size aperture, the right point of view and some careful finish work he found that it was possible to eliminate any sense of depth, thus bringing the sky flat against the opening and producing the appearance of it having been painted directly on the ceiling. After some experimentation he began to point the bright electric lights at the opening, marveling at the discord between the light seeping in and that being thrust out. These explorations revealed that when he changed the color of the electric light he could change the perceived color of the sky. He began to call the series “Skyspaces.”
With the opening of skyspace on the Campus of the University of Texas Turrell has created an installation that combines these two explorations in his past work, light and color. Every day, once at sunrise and then again at sunset, the skyspace will host a programmed sequence of LED lights that are broadcast across its stark white ceiling. During these performances the play of slowly progressing artificial and natural light is asking the viewer to focus on the in-between zone, the space where the natural and artificial light have come together to create a new light, a new color. Both the natural and artificial light continue to slowly change and engage with each other, creating an incredibly ephemeral but meditative space. In a Turrell skyspace time becomes exceptionally significant, directly responding to the sometimes drastic but often subtle variations in quality of light throughout the course of the day or year.
Its location, size and form suggest that Turrell had a very unique experience in mind, a stark contrast to the recently-constructed ‘Twilight Epiphany’ located on the campus of Rice University. While ‘Twilight Epiphany’ is cited on a prominent university axis and seats 120 people under an expansive 72 square foot white ceiling, ‘The Color Inside’ on the University of Texas campus is located on the roof, four stories above ground and seats under 30 people, seeking to provide a far more intimate experience for each guest.
There is both a power and subtlety to this experience…
An important component of this project will be Turrell’s creation of the journey to the skyspace as an integral part of the experience. The guest will be asked to traverse up through the Student Center in search of the apparatus. This expedition will become a short purification of the mind, giving everyone time to clear out the noise and distractions of their daily life. Typically we can quickly adjust our mindset upon entering spaces such as churches, temples or libraries as these have been designated places of silence and reflection but in this instance we are given time to set our mind to the correct frequency and to fully breathe in the experience offered in Turrell’s skyspace.
Upon entering the roof of the Student Center the user will be greeted with a small white oval building flanked with metal panel clad walls directing you to the entrance of the space. In another stark contrast to ‘Twilight Epiphany’ Turrell has constructed the aperture in the ceiling as an ellipse, probably functioning to achieve a distorted contour of the sky (not unlike the effect he’s been able to achieve through his work on the Roden Crater and at Stroom Den Haag); a concept he has titled Celestial Vaulting. There is both a power and subtlety to this experience, something that Turrell is intensely fascinated with during conception of his installations. In his work he seeks to orchestrate an experience rather than an effect, citing how cheap an effect can be but how revolutionary an experience.
Over time this installation will host a number of guests, some students of UT as well as others that have travelled to Austin to join in the inimitable experience offered by Turrell’s installations. Even when viewed alongside a group of strangers these spaces allow for a uniquely complex experience for the individual as well as a shared group experience, a complicated concept Turrell has been exploring throughout his career. In his own words Turrell is seeking to create a space with “psychological or perceptual cues that can take us beyond the space that we’re actually in, extend it so that we’re in a space bigger than its physical dimensions.”
A Skyspace by James Turrell: On the Rooftop Garden of The University of Texas at Austin Student Activity Center, Free to the public, reservations recommended at sunset. www.turrell.utexas.edu.