In Pursuit of Light Art & James Turrell

Several years ago I was given an opportunity to travel throughout Europe and Scandinavia in pursuit of art, specifically the work of James Turrell and other light artists. I can’t even begin to say what a dream this experience was. This trip was a result of a travel grant I received after writing a short paper entitled: A Study of James Turrell Through a Lens of Design, Transformative Space and Innovation. For this trip I traveled to 5 countries- Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden.

As I look back on my journey – each incredible and unique aspect of it – I keep coming back to Turrell’s design choices. Each installation I went into, I was able to enter a liminal space, through the specific entrance he created. While preparing for this trip, it was a detail that escaped me. We are constantly entering spaces via a door and think nothing of it. To have the time to think deeply about each threshold I crossed is what truly allowed my journey to become more than just a vacation. I would love to have a discussion with Turrell about how he consciously thought and planned each entrance, and exactly what he took into account during this process. 

In Skyspace Piz Uter, the entrance frames the shape of the mountain peak, Piz Uter, including a marked seat on the bench allowing the viewer to frame the mountain within the entrance. These opportunities to engage with the installation allows the viewer to internalize the experience in a more personal and meaningful way. I didn’t immediately discover this on my initial visit to the Skyspace, but it wasn’t until night time where I made the connection to Turrell’s design. I found myself unable to sit anywhere else in the Skyspace after. Wanting to see the mountain disappear and reappear as the sunset program evolved. Visitors came and went in the installation as I sat and experienced sunset. Seeing their level of engagement was part of the program. Seeing others’ attention as rapt as mine own while some found themselves sleeping as the colors slowly changed from white, blue and green. 

My favorite entrance was to the piece Celestial Vault in The Hague. To reach the piece, one has to climb up a stairs to enter a cylindrical tunnel made out of concrete. The length of the tunnel was just long enough to feel as if you are becoming part of something greater than yourself. At the other end of the tunnel, the grassy ellipse was awaiting. The bench set aside for the optical illusion to be experienced sat like more a statue rather than a piece to engage with. I found myself interacting with this piece of land art in every possible way. I used the stairs to look out for the Atlantic Ocean. I ran down the grassy slopes to get back to see where the sun was in relation to the tunnel. The sunset was coming and I wanted to be everywhere to experience it. Watching how the sun’s colors reflected on the white the tunnel was astonishing. Turrell thought of everything, even allowing the setting sun move towards the mouth of the tunnel, so it could find itself perfectly centered inside of it at a moment in time. 

I had never travelled alone for as long as I did for my Turrell journey. When planning a 21 day trip I feared I would get homesick, tired of schlepping around a suitcase endlessly or find the loneliness inescapable. It wasn’t until it was day 16 and I was in Oslo for me to feel the fatigue of being alone. Then I realized it can’t be a journey unless there’s a moment of personal struggle. I couldn’t figure out if it was the city, not being in Brooklyn for a close friend’s birthday or the repercussions of a break up. I leaned into those feelings knowing it was important to not avoid them as much as it made me uncomfortable. 

Had I travelled with another person, my interpretation and interaction with all of these art pieces would have been quite different. The discourse was created in my mind, allowing it to percolate and make interpersonal connections. Being on my own allowed me to never have to compromise how I entered into each of these spaces. I could come and go as I pleased, testing my thoughts and the perspectives offered up by the light. The only time I had a conversation with another person was while I was in Oslo in the Double Vision installation. The happenstance of running into another Turrell traveler was everything I wanted it to be. I thought I would only get 30 minutes inside of this underground Ganzfeld/Skyspace but I was given 3 hours. After two weeks of solo journeying it felt like a period of beautiful reflection with a complete stranger. The conversation we had was as soul enriching as the installation itself. We touched upon Turrell along with other light-based artists, life, philosophy, and the power of art. He had recently been in the Inside Outsight Skyspace where I would be travelling the following day. Hearing his tips, such as taking a time-lapse of the light programs were taken to heart. His description of wearing the key to the skyspace around his neck for days was everything I needed to hear to get me ready for the final Turrell of my journey. 

Some skyspaces have doors, like when I was able to lock myself into Outside Insight in Jarna, Sweden. For a single night I was the only person who had the key to enter this space. It was mine, allowing it to be more than an installation but also a piece of me. What intention was behind that choice? The door allowed the immersion to be such a deeper connection to the light as well as the sky. Opening the door at intervals to experience the outside atmosphere was jarring and also reassuring. The Swedish sun was always lurking in the horizon, not ever thinking about vanishing in the July night. Turrell’s lighting design would trick me into thinking the night had come, bringing blackness over the countryside, but it was merely a designed illusion. 

I initially thought I would spend the night inside of Outside Insight but the bugs overwhelmed as the sunset program ended and they flocked to light on my phone as I checked the time. As much as I was disappointed in my inability to sleep in the skyspace, the 15 minute walk back to Hotell Ytterjarna was filled with discovery. From how the night refused to completely come and the sleeping cows in the pasture. Once inside my room, I took a few hour nap so I would be ready for the sunrise program. Though I could barely get myself back to sleep, I woke up at 2:30am and went back to the Skyspace. I spent the sunset program filled with excitement, and even spent a solid hour dancing through the lights as they changed. I had to yet to interact with a Turrell in that capacity where I wasn’t just sitting and watching, but allowed the adrenaline to course through my with passionate expression. For sunrise I made sure to keep my eyes focused on the oculus as my body fought off exhaustion. For all I know, it was the last time I would ever have the opportunity to be alone in a James Turrell skyspace. 

The patience inherently needed in each of Turrell’s pieces is in stark contrast to how everyday life can be. Turrell found ways to use new LED technologies to his advantage as he added the light programs into his skyspaces. Meanwhile new technologies like Apple Watches, iPhones and Snapchat allow our patience to be avoided and ignored with instant gratification. My journey began in Berlin and I was to attend to Luther’s Light with three of my other friends. Attending this installation was so different from the others because I wasn’t alone with the experience and shared it. I hadn’t been in a piece of Turrell’s like this ever and the slow change of the lights against the silence of the participants was unnerving, I loved every second of it but found myself thinking of my friends and whether or not they were enjoying themselves. Were they able to be as patient as myself? Even after it was over and we talked about the piece, it’s so hard to truly verbalize a personal connection to something. 

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