Monday, November 14, 2011

Sky Space

On Saturday we went to a gathering at the Live Oak Friends Meeting House in Houston. This Quaker meeting house has an installation designed by James Turrell, an artist who works primarily with light. He grew up as a Quaker himself, and he remembers going to the meeting house with his grandmother, who said they were going to "look for the light." Quakers no doubt mean the light within, but Turrell took this metaphor rather literally, and he has been searching for ways to represent and frame light ever since.

We could not go in the Turrell installation at the Nasher Sculpture Center last weekend because it is being renovated, so it was nice to be able to see a similar piece in Houston. The sky space is a rectangle cut into the roof of the Friends Meeting House, with a retractable roof that rolls back over the hole if rain threatens (which, in Houston these days, is practically never). It was open when we got there.

The ceiling of the meeting house is curved, so the rectangular sky space sometimes doesn't look rectangular when you look straight up:

Also, as afternoon progresses into evening, the color of the sky begins to change rapidly:

It's amazing how entertaining it is just to watch these colors slowly change. It is similar, although better I think, to the tunnel at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston that Turrell created: it too changes colors gradually, although the effect is created by artificial light rather than by the natural light from the sky.

There is more entertainment to be had from watching the clouds and jet trails move across the sky space.

The effect is very contemplative. It sort of conflicts a little with the hard pews in the Friends Meeting House, which are more like the pews in the Grand Ole Opry House than like the sort of chaise lounge that would have been perfect for sky gazing.

Turrell talks in an Art 21 segment about how the idea for this wonderful space came about. He talks about the fact that the sky space seems to bring the sky and the atmosphere closer, just by framing it (and framing the horizon, trees, and buildings out). He says that by looking at the sky space, you realize that the sky is close to you all the time; in fact you're walking around in it! You're in the atmosphere! I think that's a really accurate description of how it feels to watch this space: it creates a kind of intimacy with the sky. And that's important these days, given how imperiled our atmosphere is, and by implication, the whole biosphere. You begin to love it a little more, rather than just taking it for granted or ignoring it.

The sky space also gives a city dweller an opportunity to experience what residents of the wide-open spaces of the Far West feel all the time: the beauty and importance of the sky. When you're out in the Big Bend, for example, there are places where there seems to be almost nothing but sky.  In the Chihuahuan desert, you can see the horizon around you for 360 degrees, and then there's this enormous bowl of the sky inverted over the apparently flat Earth. At night this bowl becomes alive with stars and meteors, and it's a show more impressive than any puny thing that happens on the ground. The spectacle sort of puts things in perspective.

At the meeting house, though, after it got dark, the roof rolled over the sky space, and an artificial light show came on, which was also pretty nice. You can't see stars in Houston anyway.

Turrell is working right now on a decades-long project at Roden Crater in Arizona. This is a huge volcanic cone that Turrell is remodeling to be the Mother of All Sky Spaces. It will be a sort of Stonehenge of contemporary American art, if the drawings are to be believed. I can't claim to understand Roden Crater really, but I hope it opens soon so I can go try to understand it. The Dia Foundation is supporting its construction in large part. It's a natural project for them, given their interest in earth works and the legacy of Minimalism and Donald Judd.  It's good that the wealth created by oil in Texas has contributed so much to monumental projects like Roden Crater that could not be built without a lot of support. But it's also great to have smaller, more modest, yet sublime pieces like the sky space in the Friends Meeting House.

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