Seeing Turrell’s Skyspace

A view of the Chestnut Hill Skyspace
Chest­nut Hill Sky­space, pho­to by Greg Ben­son for Chest­nut Hill Friends Meet­ing

My friend and I arrived at James Turrell’s Sky­space, at Philadelphia’s Chest­nut Hill Friends Meet­ing­house, just before sun­down. When I asked anoth­er vis­i­tor if we could take pho­tos, the man—who had vis­it­ed a num­ber of times before—told us the artist had asked that no one take pic­tures, so that we could keep the expe­ri­ence “in here”—he tapped at his heart.

Tur­rell has built dozens of these per­cep­tu­al envi­ron­ments around the world, but only two in the con­text of Quak­er wor­ship. This newest Sky­space encom­pass­es the small, white-walled meet­ing­house room, with a care­ful­ly con­struct­ed, rim­less open­ing in the cen­ter of its roof, and a bank of hid­den, dig­i­tal­ly pro­grammed LED lights high on the walls.

If it rains, the Sky­space view­ing is can­celled, since the rain would come right in through the open­ing, which is usu­al­ly cov­ered. It had rained just a few hours before, but thank­ful­ly, the sky cleared up: when the cov­er­ing retract­ed, we looked up into a soft­ly blue sky with puffs of gray clouds. I took the invi­ta­tion to lie on the floor, right under the open­ing. This made it dif­fer­ent from a Quak­er Meet­ing for Wor­ship, though the silence that fell over the vis­i­tors through the next fifty min­utes felt very close to a Meet­ing.

The open, rim­less rec­tan­gle, fram­ing a piece of deep sky, at first touched off a sense that I was look­ing at a painting—although a paint­ing that moves—against a white back­ground. Paint­ings tra­di­tion­al­ly aspired to be win­dows onto anoth­er view, right? It’s as if Tur­rell knew how hard it is to keep our eyes and brains still enough to pay atten­tion to the sky, and offered us this one bite-sized piece.

Slow­ly, like a cur­tain ris­ing, the hid­den light­ing in the room changed, and with that, we were trans­port­ed into anoth­er place. Tur­rell the per­cep­tu­al magi­cian ush­ered us into worlds where our sky was intense­ly green, soft orange, deep lilac or fad­ed yellow—a star­tling result of our eyes adapt­ing to the chang­ing ambi­ent hue in the room. More amaze­ments fol­lowed: was that a halo around the sky? Was I maybe stand­ing in front of a win­dow, rather than lying under it—and could I just get up and walk through it now? Final­ly, we blinked under the coal-black aper­ture, and walked out­side to a sky of mid­night blue.

Lying under the win­dow of sky, I found myself want­i­ng to share the expe­ri­ence with others—particularly with my father. He is in his final ill­ness; he sleeps a lot and talks only a lit­tle. I wished I could con­vey to him some of the light we saw, tak­ing it out of my heart and putting it in his. Still, I know the expe­ri­ence is dif­fer­ent each time and for each per­son: every­body has to see his own light.

Chest­nut Hill Sky­space is open to vis­i­tors 
at sun­set on Sun­days and Thurs­days, 
and at sun­rise on Thurs­days.
Open­ing is sub­ject to tem­per­a­ture and pre­cip­i­ta­tion.
To learn more and to reg­is­ter, vis­it chestnuthillskyspace.org

 

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