changing the color of the sky

Seeing is believing: James Turrell reveals the secrets of his mind-bending Skyspace at Rice

Seeing is believing: James Turrell reveals the secrets of his mind-bending Skyspace at Rice

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Turrell has designed at least 70 large-scale installations since the 1970s, including pieces at the Live Oak Meeting House in the Heights and at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Photo by © Michelle Watson/CatchLightGroup.com
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People feel color in relation to sound," Turrell said. "For many, when they hear a loud sound, they see a color. Or when they see a color, they hear a sort of internal music or sound. Everyone has this." Photo by © Michelle Watson/CatchLightGroup.com
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Encased within a large mound, the outdoor observation area of Twilight Epiphany is topped with a elevated flat roof containing a large square oculus. Photo by © Michelle Watson/CatchLightGroup.com
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Photo by © Michelle Watson/CatchLightGroup.com
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James Turrell , Michael Govan Photo by © Michelle Watson/CatchLightGroup.com
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Photo by © Michelle Watson/CatchLightGroup.com
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"It's funny, I actually planned a skyspace at Rice with Dominique de Menil back in 1978," artist James Turrell told CultureMap during a Saturday brunch celebrating the opening of the Skyspace Twilight Epiphany, his massive new outdoor installation outside Rice University's Shepherd School of Music.

"It was going to go right next to the Art Barn, which they now called the Media Center," he laughed, adding that the project failed to materialize at the time.

More than three decades later, Rice has finally gotten its Turrell. The artist noted that he's designed at least 70 large-scale installations since the unrealized Menil plan, including pieces at the Live Oak Meeting House in the Heights and at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Since the 1970s, Turrell has dedicated the bulk of his creative output to the "skyspace" an enclosed environment dedicated to observing the sky, usually through an opening or aperture in the roof. 

Since the 1970s, Turrell has dedicated the bulk of his creative output to the "skyspace" an enclosed environment dedicated to observing the sky, usually through an opening or aperture in the roof. Early skyspaces tended to be inside buildings or underground.

In the past decade, however, Turrell said his installations have remained largely outdoors and above ground.

In line with this recent work, Twilight Epiphany features a viewing area that rests atop a campus quad. Encased in a sloping berm, the outdoor observation room is topped with a elevated flat roof containing a large square oculus.

"I'm a mound builder really," Turrell smiled about his recent string of earthwork projects in Mexico, the Netherlands and the United Arab Emirates. "This mastaba [half pyramid] shape is something that's long locked into our genes . . .

"There were ancient mound builders in the Americas who traveled up and down the Mississippi making these huge mounds like this. That's always been interesting to me."

But the similarity to thousand-year-old burial mounds ends there, as Turrell talks about the technical aspects of the project, which features programmable arrays of high-end speakers and LED lights for use by students at the university's highly-regarded Shepherd School of Music.

"We've been directly involved with the music department, which is very interested in creating compositions written specifically for the space," he said.

Seeing is believing

Inside the space itself, observers will see the Houston sky with new eyes when they peer through the ceiling as an interior lighting display changes colors for an otherworldly optical effect. CultureMap asked Turrell what he hoped visitors would get out of the experience.

"People feel color in relation to sound," Turrell said. "It's n o different that when you look at a lemon and you feel you could taste it. Our senses are continuous and overlapping."

"The big thing about this work is that it's self-reflective," he explained. "You realize the colors that you're seeing in the opening aren't there and some people are astonished that the sky can look like this.

"It's clear, of course, that I haven't changed the color of the sky only our context of vision. In a way, this piece allows us to see ourselves seeing."

Turrell cites a number of influences ranging from the unique soft quality of light in the Houston sky to the neurological condition of synesthesia to the color-based instruments created by modernist composer Alexander Scriabin.

"People feel color in relation to sound," he said. "For many, when they hear a loud sound, they see a color. Or when they see a color, they hear a sort of internal music or sound. Everyone has this. It's no different than when you look at a lemon and you feel you could taste it.

Our senses are continuous and overlapping, but this is still something we don't really understand very well."

Twilight Epiphany's light show will be on a regular schedule for public viewing. Stay tuned to CultureMap for more details.

​And don't miss Shelby Hodge's exclusive story on the formal dedication, which drew major art figures from around the world.