James Turrell Lightscapes

After an eight hour round trip across the country with LL just to see James Turrell’s Lightscapes exhibition, I was pleased that every second in the car was well spent. This collection of Turrell’s pieces is currently being shown in Houghton Hall, Norfolk in the grand house built in 1720 for Sir Robert Walpole, Britain’s first prime minister (oh, didn’t you know that either?).

James Turrell is preoccupied with the medium of light, and how we perceive (and apprehend) light and space. His works is grounded in mathematics and perceptual psychology, and having now experienced his work first hand – can be described as bordering somewhere between psychedelic and transcendental.

He once said, that the goal of the art process was not to turn an experience into art, but to “set up a situation to which I take you and let you see. It becomes your experience.” [1]. This is so unbelievably true with Turrell’s work, more so than any other artist or installation I have come across before.

The current owner of Houghton Hall is a bit of a Turrell fan, and (as you do) has two of Turrell’s pieces permanently on display in the rather beautiful spacious grounds around the house. The work in the photo above is Skyspace, an example of one of the enclosed viewing chambers which affect your perception of the sky. The open roof, is a deep, intense blue which looks like a solid sky painted on the ceiling – until you see a cloud or a bird fly by. You go back outside and suddenly the sky seems free again and immaterial – reality seems to be just a trick of the light.

It’s impossible to photograph Turrell’s work to do it any justice, and some of his pieces such as his ‘Tall Glass’ piece Shrim (2015), we just stared at captivated. While we were looking at Shrim, A couple of teenagers bounced into the room to look at the coloured plate on the wall then turned and went out again. LL and I continued to watch, and realised that the shapes and colours (so fuzzy and indistinct I thought I had taken my glasses off for a moment) were gradually cycling in and out, so slowly it was like staring to watch the moon climbing over the sky.

A few of my photos which (although not perfect) give you some idea:

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Enzu, Green (1968)

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Raethro, Red (1969)

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First Light (1989-90)

The last piece we saw was the second of the two permanent features in the estate: St. Elmo’s Breath, known as a Space Division Construction. This is housed in an old watertower and is a standout piece. You are guided into a completely darkened room (which I tell you is not fun for a claustrophobic who is scared of pitch black darkness). You experience what seems to be an endless, fuzzy darkness, until very gradually, a gentle muted colour field reveals itself from the walls of the room. After about 20 minutes the fuzz clears and your eyes finally allow you to see not only the panels on the walls in front of you, but the shapes of the other people around you. Quite something.

As a final cherry on the exhibition cake, we also spotted a Richard Long sculpture (one of a handful of permanent contemporary sculptures that are on the site). This piece, Full Moon Circle interacts with the surroundings in a fascinating way. Overall, a great day out.
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References:

  1. J. Turrell, Mapping Spaces, Peter Blum, New York, NY, 1987

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