An Ecstasy That Rocks Into A Lullaby — James Turrell’s Skyspace at Rice University

James Turrell Skyspace @Rice University

James Turrell’s Skyspace was completed nearly two years ago, at the campus of Rice University. But it was only in the last weekend that we had the chance to experience it on a cool night. Richard Stout generously made the reservation and gave us a tour of the campus.

On most days, the performance goes up twice – at sunrise and sunset. The early evening one usually attracts many visitors.

The pyramidal architecture, at the center of a big lawn, looks totemic. Walking though that short tunnel into the structure is like joining a procession of a ritual. On the Saturday night during the summer break, there seemed more visitors than students. (The program is free but visitor parking is not.)

A square cuts the ceiling at the center, revealing the sky. The ceiling is lifted by pillars at the far corners on the second level, where light is projected upward.

The colors, sometimes surreal and intense, are programmed to reflect atmospherical and ambient changes. At sunset, within each color transition, pure white light permeates the ceiling. It is then that we realize the sky looms closer, with a richer hue.

Many critics have written about Turrell’s installation, in particular how our brains gradually adapt to the progression of color changes. The impression of colors resides after long lasting stare. What we perceive is not always based on what we see. Near the end, I always felt an illusionary dark green took over the far corners of the ceiling, even though I knew that would not be the reality.

For me,Turrell’s Skyspace extends the aesthetical tenets in Georgia O’Keefe’s flower paintings or Mark Rothko’s color blocks paintings, with advanced technology. None of these artworks has a structural complexity, but they are deeper than what are on the surface. They slow us down and demand us looking. In Turrell’s case, to the extreme. In return, we are immersed within and have to relive what artists have endured in their pursuit of truth and beauty. The ABSOLUTE of them, as it is shown, is not objective, but oscillating like those vibrated light particles within our own.

Like Tarkovsky’ movies, Turrell’s Skyspace at Rice University takes long. Each long-waited color transition blends the boundary between artificial and natural, and blurs our perception with memory. In doing so, the hour-long program functions as a lullaby for adults. The initial ecstasy recedes into a spiritual form of self reflection. No one was talking near the end. When it finally stopped, all was left was a feeling of yearning, for more.

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