Experiencing Skyspace: Ringling Museum’s Turrell Exhibit

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Inside the Ringling Museum's James Turrell Skyspace, a skeptical Adam Davies succumbs to the power of light.

Author: Adam Davies


James Turrell Ringling Museum

I am sitting on a joyless wooden bench in a room at the Ringling Museum getting spritzered by rain gushing through the enormous hole cut into the roof and I can’t stop thinking, What is wrong with me? The problem isn’t just that I’m getting rained on indoors; the problem is that I fear that I am suffering from some deficiency of the soul, for this installation is Joseph’s Coat by James Turrell, an artist whose Skyspaces—pieces of architecture that have a section of the roof removed for celestial viewing—are being celebrated with canine devotion by nearly every critic alive. And yet here I am, a sodden unsophisticate, failing to generate even the tiniest zing of epiphany. I am as inveterately opposed to falsity as Holden Caulfield, so after a few more minutes of contemplation I start suspecting that maybe there is something hucksterish about the whole enterprise—the sky I am viewing through the aperture of the Skyspace is, after all, the same sky that resides outside—and I find myself starting to make an uncharitable comparison with Turrell and the stereotypical Hollywood producer who makes a viewfinder out of fingers and thumbs to evaluate a scene.

To make matters worse, my guide for the day is Matthew McLendon, the Ringling’s handsome, affable, deeply intelligent curator of modern and contemporary art, whom I admire and like instantly, and so I quail a bit when my private doubts are articulated by a mother of two bored-looking children who, after sitting for a few uncomprehending minutes, asks us innocently, “Um, what does it do?”

It’s a fair question, and one that I blush to admit I pondered myself when I first entered the room. The supposed frisson of meditative awakening that is said to be produced by Turrell’s Skyspaces is not immediately apparent. The most complimentary thing I can say at first is that there are some moderately attractive elements here. There is a 24-foot-by-24-foot hole in the roof that makes an ample opening through which to take in the sky above, and there’s an airy clerestory set above dignified square columns painted white. Echoing precisely the dimensions of the aperture overhead is a section of flooring covered in marble that is very slightly graded to a central point, like a shortstack pyramid, for drainage reasons.

This all makes the space feel less like a destination than something meant to be traversed, like an underused courtyard. The walls, which are perforated by portholes that serve as air recirculators to discourage birds from nesting, are mostly painted a diluted Pepto-Bismolic pink of the sort you would find in a children’s hospital, and the room itself is bounded by rows of inward-facing benches that reflect Turrell’s Quaker values of simplicity and community. There are also some flowering jasmine plants held up by latticework and zip ties, and at regular intervals there are some wall-climbing ivy plants.

And that’s about it. So at least provisionally, it does not appear to be a room that evinces much mystical power. Turrell describes his work by invoking places like Angkor Wat, Machu Pichu, Maeshowe—ancient sites that are still charged with palpable spiritual energies—but the first impression I get from Joseph’s Coat is that it is a space that is not yet fulfilling its purpose. So although it is handsome and temple-like it also looks unrealized and expectant and not exactly chock full of meaning. In fact, its open airiness makes it seem as if it is waiting for meaning to be installed.

It is empty, it seems to me, in the way a bookcase can be empty.

I force myself to consider that perhaps the problem is mine. Maybe I’m just not attuned. I concede this openly. After all, I have been told innumerable times by incalculable numbers of frustrated people, including parents, math teachers and exes, that I Just Don’t Get It. And then there is the unprecedented fact that Turrell has three major retrospectives going simultaneously at the Guggenheim Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, all curated by people whose discernment far surpasses mine, so I ask Matthew to leave me alone so I can gauge the reactions of other museum visitors.

It does not go well.

My first subject, a middle-aged man in contraceptively tight chinos, supports my courtyard theory by blowing through the space as if it’s an inconvenience. Next comes an Asian couple who pause when they see me writing in a notebook diligently—and wetly—and cast about to see what they are missing. Finding nothing attention-worthy, they regard each other with a look that communicates they think I must be a kook and then exit hastily. The third is an old lady with one of those scaffold-like walkers shod in slit tennis balls. Immediately upon entering, she accelerates in a meaningful vector toward a bench.

Aha, I think, here is someone who knows what’s what; she must be going to a seat that has an advantageous viewpoint. Unfortunately, however, what she is beelining toward is not an artistic sweet spot at all but my unattended gift bag, which she tries to steal.

So. That’s three strikes against Turrell in the space of five minutes.

But good people of Sarasota, I am here to tell you now, out loud and untakebackably, that all these people—the pants man, the worried Asian couple, the teetering would-be thief, and, alas, even this benighted writer—are all the wrongest kind of wrong. Joseph’s Coat is not bunkum. As I am about to discover, it is the most moving, most deeply spiritual visual art I have ever experienced, and I entreat you to go see it. See it in the sunshine, see it in the rain, see it singly or with a date or with friends or with enemies—and if you want to see it in its most poetic incarnation, flush with evolving light, see it when the Ringling puts on its sunset events—but whatever you do, trust me:

Just go see it.

It may very well change the way you look at everything.

It did for me.

 ***

James Turrell has a questing heart and enormous perspicacity. He found the perfect location for his most ambitious Skyspace—an extinct volcano in Arizona that he has repurposed like a Bond villain monomaniacally obsessed with spectacle—by searching the terrestrial landscape for seven months from his small plane aloft in the skies of California and Arizona. That is not a misprint: He searched for seven months. He often found himself so far from home, and from an airport, that he would land in any nonlethal spot and camp right there for the night.

He demands the same meticulousness from his workers, insisting that all measurements are exact to within 1/64th of an inch. In the case of Joseph’s Coat, that meant that people had to sand the ceiling at a height of 35 feet, one grueling centimeter at a time. And the border around the edge of the aperture is made out of one foot of surgical-grade steel that was custom-made at a knife factory. The metal, however, is painted the same noncommittal, clean-canvas white as the rest of the ceiling, which begs the question: Why bother?

The short answer, of course, is that this is James Turrell; nothing is unworthy of his notice. The other answer is that it creates literally the sharpest contrast between the frame and its subject, which is a visual analogue to why oenophiles prefer to drink the finest wines out of glasses with the thinnest, most crystalline lip rather than bulbous plastic Thermoses. It enhances the entire sensory experience.

All this jeweler-grade attention to detail has produced a room of such sublime subtlety that it is forgivable if, like me, you are at first unable to discern its power. But Turrell is an artist who requires—and rewards—close inspection. And as I continue to inspect and absorb my surroundings, I start to feel my resistance ebbing away.

In fact, I realize, Joseph’s Coat is a kind of temple devoted to the zazen of seeing, and as I surrender to it, I start to understand how urgently the space wants you to look up. The stern benches are angled slightly backwards, encouraging their sitters to tilt their gaze heavenwards. The columns, the clerestory, the pagoda-like roof, the up-striving ramifications of the ivy, the cinema-screen orifice that looms over everything—all of them conduce to physically looking upward and, therefore, to celestial contemplation. (I am reminded of the many studies that affirm that the act of smiling can actually make you feel better, and I find myself wondering if we would all be more enlightened if we simply walked around staring at the sky instead of our shoes.)

Even the portholes that recirculate the air are canted in a way that coincides with the angle of your skyward gaze, as if by committing the act of looking you are penetrating beyond the surface of things—a clever testimony to the power of observation.

But the experience is more than merely visual. As I sit here on an otherwise unexalted Thursday afternoon, beneath a sky the color of wet papier-mâché and not a hundred yards away from U.S. 41, the most drearily congested street in town, I am overwhelmed with the glory of sensory input. The typewriter-clatter of the rain on the marble tiles—the same soundtrack enjoyed for thousands of years by kings and Caesars—is underscored by the zesty refractive mist of each raindrop as it explodes upon impact. The ivy and flowering jasmine don’t produce much perfume—at least not to someone with an allergy-dulled nose like mine—but as they grow ever upwards they do make the room’s dull pinkness seem less clinical, and when the flora has grown up to the height that has been mandated by Turrell himself, the space could be Edenic.

Occasionally birds flit above, as if exiting and entering a stage, and buzzing dragonflies strafe my head gleefully. A single-engine Cessna blows a sputtering raspberry as it struggles to ascend; it is so large in the viewfinder overhead that I get a vicarious rush of excitement, as if I am its landlubber co-pilot. Clots of cumulus clouds drift by, some going about their business with unhurried cloudy élan, some becoming lazily pulled apart by unknowable atmospheric breezes. And when the rain stops there is the digestive burble of water draining and the bracing, oxygenated feeling of everything being washed clean and made clearer.

Would I have noticed all these things without the lens of Turrell’s Skyspace? Yes, absolutely. I have routinely heard rain, seen clouds, observed insects and birds, and smelled plant life. But let me tell you: I have never appreciated them like this. And my observations have never been this full of sensation; it hasn’t mattered this much to my soul. To use the artist’s terms, I have never seen myself see like this. I am abashed to confess here that I have to exert some quantity of self-discipline to prevent a tear from leaking out of a newly empowered eyeball at the sheer elemental joy of it all. And this, my friends, isn’t the half of it, for I have not yet even seen the most thrilling, most soul-stirring expression of Turrell’s genius:

The Skyspace at sunset, illuminated by sorcerous Turrellian light.

 ***

In defense of the quartet of nonbelievers with whom I shared some insensate resistance to Joseph’s Coat earlier in the afternoon, no Skyspace is made fully animate or most vivid until it is awash in the light that can only be produced by one man on earth. It is impossible to fully appreciate the mesmerizing, plumbless light that Turrell creates by looking at pictures of his spaces—that would be about as satisfying as eating a menu. Language may be an even poorer method of communicating its nature, but one way to describe it is that Turrell works with light the way a blacksmith works with metal. He bends it, shapes it, produces something new and unique with it. And the precise shade and luminosity of colors he creates are so foreign it is as if they are coming from an alien civilization.

I promise that you have never seen anything like it.

The effect of all this upon viewers is wildly unpredictable. Upon seeing a Turrell installation at the Guggenheim Museum, a New York Times reporter was nearly brought to his knees by the “rush of blood” to his head; he noted that a woman, overcome at the vertiginous shock of another Turrell installation, City of Arhirit at the Whitney Museum of American Art, fell down, broke her arm, and sued Turrell and the Whitney. Another piece, described by a curator at the Guggenheim as “very aggressive and very hallucinatory,” was so overwhelming that Turrell required viewers to certify that they were “18 years old, sober, and sane.”

But these are the exceptions; mainly people who attend a Turrell exhibit—correction: people who see a Turrell exhibit—report experiencing something mesmerizing and transcendent. It’s no surprise, then, that some of the most frequent return visitors at Rice University’s Skyspace are EMTs and firefighters who seek out Twilight Epiphany as a kind of purgative for the stress of their jobs. It’s not uncommon to hear uncontrollable giggling. Matthew McLendon, who has seen the display more than 40 times, says that it is like watching the Big Bang.

At 7 o’clock tonight I get to find out for myself.

I show up five minutes late, panicked that I’m missing the crucial light of sunset, so when I meet Matthew and some other museum people, we all quickstep to the building. By the time we get there most of the benches are occupied and a crowd of people is spread out on the floor, mostly reclining on yoga mats on the slightly graded marble tiles. The whole room feels at once worshipful and charged with the same kind of giddy communal energy that attends a sleepover. A mother and daughter sit on adjacent benches; the mother is knitting and the daughter is clenching and unclenching her fingers, coping, perhaps, with some texting withdrawal syndrome. A woman in exercise apparel does some ab work with her girlfriend. A husband who is having a whispered argument with his wife about why he has to be here resolutely crosses his arms, fists burrowed into armpits, to repel her attempt at hand-holding; despite himself, however, he too keeps looking upward to the sky. A bank of four elderly women sit on a bench together, their heads tilted upwards in unison. Nearly everyone sitting on the benches is in this same position, in fact, which gives the room a kind of meerkatty group watchfulness. The anticipatory excitement is enhanced by locusts singing in an erratic, swelling chorus that sounds like a philharmonic warming up.

All of us—even insect life—are waiting for the performance to begin.

One of the coolest applications of technology in Joseph’s Coat is the computer that controls the lights. It is set to coincide with the exact rhythms of the sunset on any given day of the year, like a HAL 9000 whose only task is to track the progress of the sun like an electronic heliotrope. After just a few minutes of waiting, I notice that the LEDs are, in fact, already on—I feel a bit crestfallen that I didn’t perceive them blink to life—and that their first effect is to wash out a bit of the color on the walls so that they acquire the pinkness of an old pencil eraser. There are no rules posted anywhere in the Skyspace, and no one makes any announcements about cell phones or similar, but all at once, as if obeying some conductor of etiquette for mystical occasions, the room goes silent.

The sky is nearly featureless tonight, and for a moment I fear that there just won’t be that much to see, but I am wrong yet again. One by one, pinprick stars appear in the dull gloom overhead. From somewhere, I feel a breeze. People who were sitting upright in benches now recline. Couples on the floor start holding hands. Birds and dragonflies make their entrances and exits. There is the hectic, plaintive thrum of traffic that is punctuated now and then by the outraged bleating of a horn or the combustive banshee-wail of Japanese sports bikes revving to redline. Then, as the sky darkens, the LEDs come on in earnest, illuminating the ceiling with shifting light. Turrell seems to favor the colors you would see in a deep-space nebula—radiant purpley fuschias and violets and oranges and, briefly, the green of old aquarium gravel—and the many, many carnal varieties of red, a color that gives the whole experience a birth-like aspect.

Suddenly there is a mad bristling noise of distress and a fat dragonfly crash-lands at my feet. He is tilted forward onto his head and front legs and he just sort of sits there, obeisant, as if he has come to offer his prayers. I think of him as a kind of mascot or spirit totem and affectionately decide to call him Evinrude after the daring motorboat captain in The Rescuers.

For a few meditative minutes we silently enjoy each other’s company, Evinrude and I, but then, sadly, he starts spasming and tilts over, helicoptering desperately on his back. I right him again but he flips right back over and resumes what I now realize are his death throes.

I consider taking him out of the Skyspace—it is a noisy, unignorable spectacle—but then I decide that this is precisely what Turrell is about: becoming more in touch with life, not less, and if a death occurs here tonight, we should all experience it together. Maybe you think this is melodramatic, but inside a Skyspace, everything counts, and besides, there are very few places more beautiful to breathe your last breath than inside a temple of shifting light. There is a spiritual glory to it akin to a Viking burial at sea.

When it’s my time, I hope to go surrounded by such unearthly beauty.

Still, I can’t help feeling sad about Evinrude, so I take the opportunity to sneak outside and compare my impression of the naked sky with the sky I saw through the exhibit’s aperture. Outside the sky is non-numinous. I go back inside and, despite one woman who is incomprehensively texting on her cellphone, everyone is still entranced. We are deeper into sunset now and the sky has become more plummy, the stars more scintillant. The LEDs shift from an ardent red to something nearly infernal and everyone is so into it that they don’t even notice me returning to my spot on the floor. In fact, even when a baby is brought in—gulp—it immediately clings to its mother happily and silently, just as spellbound as the adults.

I had wondered prior to seeing the lights for myself whether the LEDs would contribute to any feelings of artificiality; they don’t. They are modern and electric, sure, but they are also so visceral and atavistic that they seem like the digital-age equivalent of a Neolithic campfire. The changing evolutions of color also feel like the aesthetic antidote for modern life and its relentless flaring electrical alert messages and beeps. The soothing, meditative effect of the Skyspace makes me wish I could make a pre- and post-Turrell assessment of everyone’s blood pressure.

Now the sky is totally dark and the colors are at their most candent and the crowd is at its most fully invested. Everyone is maximally at rest and unself-conscious; some people are humming, others are kissing, and there are a lot of interpretative savasanas going on. Then something miraculous happens:

Evinrude resumes his spasms.

I am so delighted that I could hug his fat little thorax, but I don’t get the chance. As soon as Evinrude restarts his madcap breakdancing, one of the Ringling crew steps forward, tenderly picks him up,and then, with a magician-like flutter of his fingers, releases him into flight. Evinrude buzzes into the air and passes through the aperture overhead and into the starry night.

And he isn’t the only one revivified by Joseph’s Coat. After sunset is finally complete and the houselights come back on, I see that most of the audience is changed, as well. The daughter with the unquiet fingers is now calm and unclenched; the dubious husband is holding hands with his wife; strangers are talking to each other about the experience and the entire room is suffused with feelings of good will and, well, a kind of fullness. With the possible exception of the woman with the ever-lit cell phone, we have all been so moved by this observatory of the soul that it is as if we have had the world’s slowest epiphany—one that occurs at the elemental speed of sunset.

And now, two weeks later, I can report that the effect is undiminished. I find it astonishing that something so ephemeral is also so enduring, but this is what Turrell does. He gives us not just the gift of light itself but something even rarer: a way to see that light. And if your response to Joseph’s Coat is anything like mine—or like Evinrude’s—you will be changed. You will take your new powers of observation and appreciation with you so that everything you see in the regular, workaday world will be infused with a wonder and meaning that might have remained undiscovered if not for the inspired lessons of James Turrell.

Celebrating Skyspace

You’re invited to these special events and performances at The Ringling.

In honor of the second anniversary of the opening of James Turrell’s Skyspace, the museum plans a “Greet the Light” party in the courtyard to mark the winter solstice, Dec. 21. The party starts at 6:30 p.m. with live entertainment, food and beverages available for purchase, and a chance to experience Joseph’s Coat.

In addition, the museum is presenting New Stages 2014: Places in the Sky, a series of contemporary performances beginning in January. With a title suggested by the Skyspace, the series includes singer Meklit Hadero (Places in the Sky, Jan. 23-25); w Lostwax Multimedia Dancer Theatre (Particular, Feb. 6-8); Ethel & Robert Mirabal (Music of the Sun, Feb. 20-22); dance company The Foundry (No Hero, March 6-8); and composer John Luther Adams’ Inuksuit: In the Capacity of the Human, March 22, a work meant to heighten our awareness of the sights and sounds that surround us. That performance takes place in the museum’s courtyard; the others are set in the Historic Asolo Theater. All are part of the Ringling’s overall Art of Our Time season. For complete information call 360-7399 or go to ringling.org.

A novelist and former visiting writer at New College, Adam Davies wrote “The Loneliest Lemur on Earth” in our September Guide to Giving. He won first-place awards from the Florida Magazine Association and the South Florida Society of Professional Journalists for his “Saranova and Me” in our November 2012 issue.

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