Tag Archives: sacred architecture

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



James Turrell and sacred architecture

James Turrell’s Aten Reign at the Guggen­heim

James Turrell’s instal­la­tions at the Guggen­heim left me in an altered state.  Using light as his pri­ma­ry medi­um, Turrell’s art requires slow look­ing and an active accep­tance of ambiguity—both con­ducive to enter­ing a kind of con­tem­pla­tive trance.

He’s pur­sued his sin­gu­lar work, from ear­ly exper­i­ments with slide pro­jec­tors in dark rooms to Roden Crater, his mon­u­men­tal envi­ron­men­tal work-in-progress in the Ari­zona desert. Since most of us won’t get to Roden Crater—though I sure would like to—this year’s major shows in Los Ange­les, New York and Hous­ton offer a rare chance to see some big work by Tur­rell. Aten Reign, his trans­for­ma­tion of the Guggenheim’s atri­um into a mas­sive cone of grad­u­al­ly shift­ing light and col­or, is the biggest tem­po­rary piece he’s cre­at­ed so far. The expe­ri­ence of it is qui­et and med­i­ta­tive, shared with a crowd of peo­ple, and last­ing about an hour. In oth­er words, it feels less like an art exhib­it than the sacred expe­ri­ence you might have with oth­ers in a tem­ple or church.

Tur­rell  has been open about this side of his work; he talks about light as rev­e­la­tion. A Quak­er, he has designed a space for a Quak­er meet­ing­house in Hous­ton that brings the sky direct­ly into the room, trans­lat­ing the Quak­er idea of find­ing the light with­in into out­ward form. But, giv­en the times we are liv­ing in—many cen­turies after the ages of great sacred architecture—the art world can be a more or less wel­com­ing alter­na­tive for such impuls­es. It’s less wel­com­ing to the extent that talk­ing about the con­nec­tion of light with spir­i­tu­al life can and does make some peo­ple uncom­fort­able (see Jed Perl’s piece in the New Repub­lic).

Tur­rell may be bet­ter under­stood in the con­text of his pre­de­ces­sors in sacred architecture—including those who cre­at­ed the stained-glass light shows inside the great Goth­ic cathe­drals. The Abbé Sug­er, who lived in the 12th cen­tu­ry, brought togeth­er glass artists from all over Europe to make the inno­v­a­tive stained glass win­dows of the Abbey Church of St. Denis, the first tru­ly Goth­ic build­ing. The Abbé devel­oped his own the­ol­o­gy of light, involv­ing three aspects: lux, lumen and illu­mi­na­tion. Lux is phys­i­cal light, from the sun or anoth­er source. Lumen is light trans­formed by sacred intention—having passed through the artist’s sparkling glass pan­els into a con­se­crat­ed space. And illu­mi­na­tion is that trans­formed light, stand­ing for a divine, invis­i­ble light, appre­hend­ed with­in the viewer’s heart. This way of explor­ing how phys­i­cal light can be trans­formed feels more use­ful to me in respond­ing to James Turrell’s work than lim­it­ing the con­ver­sa­tion to per­cep­tu­al psychology—how the mind works to inter­pret the tricky behav­ior of pho­tons.

Tur­rell knows all about the pho­tons, and how we per­ceive them—he’s a mage of light and its effects. His pre­de­ces­sor, Abbé Sug­er, reminds us not to get hung up on the photons—to be open to the illu­mi­na­tion with­in.