Behold the Sky

by Michael Mason


The first time was arbitrary. I was the only early-morning visitor in the art gallery, and a security guard beckoned to me from around a corner.

“Don’t leave until you see this,” he said, ushering me toward an unlit room. “Just take a few steps inside and wait a minute.”

The guard closed the door behind me, leaving me in darkness. The sounds of Manhattan’s traffic faded, and I stood still and waited. Faintly, flickers from miniature Japanese lanterns began floating around me like fireflies. The walls of the room were lined with mirrors, so as the lanterns brightened, they fanned out into a glowing galaxy surrounding me. A few moments before, I had been tromping through the busy streets of New York City; now I found myself suspended in a quiet starfield, transfixed by the sight. Before long, the lanterns began to dim, then faded entirely. The door opened, and I walked back out of the darkness and into the world of taxi horns and skyscrapers.

Yayoi Kusama’s installation Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity started me on a search for sublime spaces, a quest for modern day temples. In America’s middle, temples aren’t abundant—at least not the proper ones. There are temples to bass fishing and temples to football and temples to entertainment, but few are the temples that satisfy their original purpose: to induce a sense of stillness and to focus our awareness. Inevitably, the search for the modern temple led me to the American artist James Turrell.

Since the 1970s, Turrell has been building structures called Skyspaces, where the sky itself is presented as the subject. The structures invite contemplation and evoke wonder.

“Overall, I see each of the eighty or so Skyspaces I have made as unique, separate chapters in this novel of having continuous twilight throughout the world,” Turrell told me in an email. He said that Skyspaces stand in 25 countries and in 21 states in the U.S. Turrell is a Quaker, a member of America’s most Zen religion; he designed a meeting house for the Society of Friends in Houston with a convertible roof that allows skylight into the structure. Much of Turrell’s art involves presenting light in a way that gives it the appearance of achieving mass and weight—a popular piece at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, for example, tricks viewers into seeing a canvas where there’s actually a hole in a wall. Yet Turrell isn’t so much an illusionist as he is a provocateur of light. He sculpts in the plane between human perception and physical space, exploiting the idiosyncrasies of both to arrive at surprising illuminations.

“I think that even when you go into gothic cathedrals, where the light and the space have such a way of engendering awe … what the artists have made for you in this place is almost a better connection to things beyond us than anything the preacher can say,” Turrell told an interviewer in 1999.

For years, Turrell has been working on one of the most anticipated art installations in the world, the Roden Crater art project near Flagstaff, Arizona. Pictures of the unfinished project have been posted online and look like scenes from a futuristic moon landing. Few visitors have toured the crater, and hardly any details of the work appear online—though a recent comment on the project’s Facebook page suggests that the crater’s opening is still a few years away.

In 2009, Turrell began work on The Way of Color, a Skyspace that showcases a nine-and-a-half foot oculus of Ozark sky from the grounds of Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Arkansas. Built from regional stone, The Way of Color is a bunker-like building lodged into the side of a hill. You enter through a square hallway and into a round room that has a horseshoe-shaped bench running along its sides. On the tiled floor, there’s a large circle of black sand that mirrors the opening in the ceiling above it. The building itself lacks ornamentation because its design is meant to draw attention heavenward, toward the sky itself.

During the day, the open disc of sky sets a serene and contemplative tone in theSkyspace. At dawn and dusk, however, a new display emerges.

I visited The Way of Color under a cold and blank January sky. The muted light inside the building felt gentle and grayish blue—you could sense the sky bending toward night. At 5:28 p.m., a glow appeared from the discretely placed fixtures that circumnavigated the room. The space swelled with a soft yellow. As the lights along the periphery slowly changed colors, the blue tones of the sky yielded to greens and pinks and dozens of other wavelengths along the spectrum. Over the course of thirty minutes, I sat quietly among a dozen other visitors and watched the Skyspace slowly shift shades.

Turrell designed The Way of Color to correspond to the specific characteristics of Arkansas’s sky.

“Even though it is in the Ozarks, it is part of the Middle American big sky, and the humidity strikes a blend between very humid and very dry,” Turrell explained. “As far as the light pollution, Bentonville as a neighborhood is low on that scale so that we do get a very good vision in nautical twilight.”

During the light display, a curator for the exhibit encouraged us to look out into the hallway if we wanted to remind ourselves of the sky’s color outside. I craned my neck around the corner and saw the dying light through the branches of the surrounding forest and wondered if that sky’s color was any truer than the one above. The Way of Color shows us that our surroundings shape what we see, that our own eyes and minds perceive a reality that isn’t as immutable as we might think.

The final few minutes of The Way of Color are the most dramatic. A deep sapphire light saturates the room, and the sky above grows dark purple. As the LEDs sweep across a brighter, richer array of colors, there are occasional pulses of dark, where the midnight blue light inside matches the outer night sky. It feels like the opposite of a camera flash, as though your mind is blinking instead of your eyes. At the end of the light sequence, a clean black disk of night hovers atop the room, reflecting the black circle of sand below. One by one, visitors stand up and walk out into the night, this time more familiar with the sky, and—if Turrell has reached them—a part of it.

Originally published in This Land, Vol. 4, Issue 7. April 1, 2013.