all along the watchtower

From the observation deck: A sneak peek at artist James Turrell's mysterious new light installation at Rice University

From the observation deck: A sneak peek at artist James Turrell's mysterious new light installation at Rice University

Turrell Twilight Epiphany Light Show
Turrell noted that the light show is nearly impossible to capture on film . . . Starting in mid-June, however, Houstonians will be able to catch the twice-daily LED performances on a regular schedule. Photo by Tyler Rudick
Turrell Twilight Epiphany Light Show
View from second-story viewing area with Shepherd School of Music in the background. Note the LED arrays at the bottom of the image. Photo by Tyler Rudick
Turrell Twilight Epiphany Light Show
In a purple light, the sky appears somewhat green . . . Unfortunately, the colors are difficult to render correctly on camera. Photo by Tyler Rudick
Turrell Twilight Epiphany Light Show
Granite seating in the first floor observation area is slightly inclined towards the oculus at the center of the roof. Photo by Tyler Rudick
Turrell Twilight Epiphany Light Show
Looking down the central axis with a view of the central opening in the roof. Photo by Tyler Rudick
Turrell Twilight Epiphany Light Show
Turrell Twilight Epiphany Light Show
Turrell Twilight Epiphany Light Show
Turrell Twilight Epiphany Light Show
Turrell Twilight Epiphany Light Show

Well, it's totally true. The sky really does change color in James Turrell's new Twilight Epiphany skyspace at Rice University.

During a preview of the installation’s much-anticipated light show, CultureMap was lucky enough to experience the piece’s skyward alchemy firsthand.

News writers and photographers arrived just before sunset to take our places inside the mysterious two-story structure next to the Shepherd School of Music. From a distance, the skyspace resembles a sort of modernist walk-in burial mound topped with an elevated flat white roof.

"Since this is your first visit, we usually suggest starting in the enclosed first floor viewing area," explained Rice Public Art director Molly Hubbard as the group stepped into the ground floor observation room. Directly overhead, a 14-foot square oculus looked to the sky.

A fter staring at the opening in the roof for at least 10 minutes, the oculus appeared completely flat — a crisp dark square on a mustard-colored backdrop.

"Each level offers a completely different experience, though, so feel free to walk up to the second floor," she added as we made our way to the granite seats along the wall.

As the sun started to set, LED lights on the upper floor projected a wash of pale orange onto the ceiling. When the light sequence shifted to a pinkish hue, Hubbard noted that the 35-minute show had started.

When the lights slowly turned a deep shade of purple, something clearly was starting to happen. Through the opening above, the darkening evening sky was becoming a blue-green. Even the brighter strips of sky visible below the roofline were taking on a greenish cast.

Moments later, purple changed to pink and then to yellow. The sky was a dark navy now, and after staring at the opening in the roof for at least 10 minutes, the oculus appeared completely flat — a crisp dark square on a mustard-colored backdrop.

Then the magic started. (Spoiler alert!)

While the yellow LED lights gradually turned blue, the navy square appears to brighten and, for a few seconds, it actually disappears before settling on gray.

Needing a point of comparison, I took Hubbard's advice and stepped outside the installation to climb the stairs to the second floor observatory.

From the upper level, the sky through the oculus and beneath the roofline appeared an even darker gray under the blue LEDs, which changed back to purple to return the sky to its previous blue-green shade.

As the purple lights turned white, Turrell’s light show had one more trick up its sleeve . . . which Houstonians can see for themselves starting June 14, when Twilight Epiphany begins its regular schedule of dawn and dusk performances. Stay tuned for details.