“Gathered Sky” By James Turrell
By Kevin Holden Platt
American light artist James Turrell’s first “Skyspace” light installation in China brings spark of life to Beijing temple complex.
Tibetan monks playing “thungchen,” or long horns, greet visitors to a simple Zen-like structure on the southern edge of the newly restored Temple of Wisdom complex in Beijing.
The music, streamed into the space, animates James Turrell’s first “Skyspace” project in China: Turrell designed this building – a basic white cube tipped with an oculus – and the exhibition that begins here each Sunday at dusk.
Colored waves of LED light initially complement the blue-sky oculus, but then compete with and ultimately overpower the last rays of the sun. The oculus becomes a slate-black mirror until, through another trick of the lights, it dissolves into a looking glass on the stars.
Turrell describes the Skyspace installation, on his website, as “a specifically proportioned chamber with an aperture in the ceiling open to the sky.”
“Skyspaces can be autonomous structures or integrated into existing architecture,” he adds. “The aperture can be round, ovular or square.”
The artist spent two years designing the architecture and the installation of his Beijing Skyspace project on the grounds of this centuries-old Buddhist complex, said Juan van Wassenhove, a Belgian banker and art patron who led the restoration of the temple.
There is a connection between Turrell’s cosmos-linking light installation and the quest for enlightenment that once animated this Buddhist outpost tied to the court of the Kangxi Emperor, a follower of Tibetan Buddhism, van Wassenhove said.
Supported by succeeding generations of emperors who ruled from the nearby Forbidden City palace complex, the Temple of Wisdom fell victim to communist forces who captured Beijing in 1949 and routinely expelled monks and nuns from their cloisters. When Van Wassenhove discovered the compound seven years ago, it had nearly been destroyed, and he set out to save and rebuild it.
“To give it new life,” he explained, “I thought we could install contemporary artworks that focus on light that would be appropriate for a temple.”
Rays of idealism have animated Turrell’s light installations and architectural designs – he is building a matrix of celestial/light observatories across a massive, inactive volcano called Roden Crater in Arizona – since he emerged from a prison in 1967, detained for his anti-war activism. Turrell told reporters that while imprisoned – following an FBI sting operation – he was tortured via light deprivation in solitary confinement.
Since then Turrell, who with his thick white hair and snowy beard bears a curious resemblance to Kris Kringle, has seen his light-focused artworks and architectural models, including 80 Skyspace projects like the one in Beijing, built around the globe.
“It is rare for an artist to influence directly the progress of architecture,” stated the Royal Institute of British Architects upon naming Turrell an honorary fellow four years ago. “The work of James Turrell is an outstanding example of this unusual circumstance.”
And there has been an ongoing explosion of exhibitions presenting Turrell’s works. On reconceiving the atrium and rotunda of the Guggenheim Museum in New York as a soaring Skyspace, Turrell stated in an video interview posted on the Guggenheim’s website: “I want the strength of the power and the primal relationship we have to light to be the strongest … You are immersed in this. It’s a little bit like stepping into the painting.”
A retrospective of Turrell’s architecture and art is being staged at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art through April 6, 2014, while another show, at the Villa Panza in Varese, Italy, runs through May 4 of next year.
In the Chinese capital, Juan van Wassenhove said the “Gathered Sky” installation will be open to the public every Sunday at sunset throughout 2014.