“Just Light”: James Turrell Talks Skyspaces at UT

Turrell-Skyspace_sunsetArtist James Turrell’s medium of choice must be shaped, molded, and formed, not unlike clay. Like paint, it requires a canvas and, as with any other medium, it took him a while to get the hang of it.

“It’s a very plastic and malleable material, but learning to really use light took me some time,” Turrell said last week when he visited the Student Activity Center for a public Q&A the day before his new exhibit, “The Color Inside,” a project seven years in the making, opened to the public.

Located on the roof of the SAC, the circular, white plaster structure offers visitors a chance to recline and view the sky through a distinct opening in the ceiling.

The piece is one of more than 80 “skyspaces,” all with a circular opening to the sky, that Turrell has installed all over the world—from as nearby as Houston to as far away as Ireland, Spain, and Austria.

“In some ways we’re a bit like crustaceans. We inhabit these shells, like this building here, which is pretty obviously too small,” Turrell said to the packed SAC ballroom. “Then we get out and get into a moveable shell, like a car. It’s a lot like hermit crabs playing musical chairs. I don’t always know if it’s something we’re aware of, so my idea was to cut through and make an opening to the outside.“

Turrell also talked two experiences that spurred his interest in the heavens: A memorable drive he took in a convertible around New York City, where “no one but tourists look up,” and the time he spent flying planes as an aerial cartographer.

“Each sky is so unique. Especially here in Texas. Austin is different even from Houston,” Turrell said. “I thought if I had a skyspace in every time zone, one would always be approaching the sweet spot, twilight. I only need 20 more.”

Turrell’s other works, including an extinct volcano in Arizona which he bought and transformed into an observatory, all echo an intent to present light as its own art form.

“I made these spaces that were just made with light; where light is the spacemaker,” Turrell said. “Light not only reveals but it also obscures. It illuminates the atmosphere. It has this transparency and opacity that you work between.”

UT’s new skyspace will also employ colored LED lights meant to contrast with the changing color of the sky during sunset. Visitors will be able to reserve a block to view the sequence privately or with a group. During the day Turrell encourages visitors to set aside the stresses of the day and use the calm place for sitting and thinking. Turrell was raised a Quaker—a faith that values silence and tranquility—and he said that experience has influenced his art. One of his skyspaces, at the Live Oak Friends Meeting House in Houston, is regularly used for Quaker meetings.

Yet Turrell also doesn’t take his work too seriously. “You need a hole in the ceiling like you need a hole in the head,” he joked of his skyspaces. “But now you have one.”

Photo courtesy Overland Partners


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