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The James Turrell Skyspace Experience

We made the pilgrimage and spoke with the docent that overlooks the installation.
James Turrell’s “Twilight Epiphany” Skyspace at Rice University. Photo by Florian Holzherr 

Every visit to the James Turrell Skyspace, the monumental light installation open to the public and located on Rice University, is an art pilgrimage of epic proportions. It is at once life affirming and life changing. The 40-minute set of colorful hues that cycle in a loop at sunset are spellbinding. As a visitor you get overwhelmed by the simplicity of the installation; colors that morph in and out of each other in a white open-air temple to contemporary art but with time and the progression of color movement, the art becomes apparent.


By staring up at the white canvas of the roof, a cut out square of sky becomes the anchor of the color displays. Once the colors start and twilight begins, the miraculous effects of nature take place in harmony with Turrell’s art. Pink becomes raspberry becomes a montage of childhood memories in ice cream cones, and Australian sunsets. Orange becomes saffron and then vermillion.

James Turrell’s “Twilight Epiphany” Skyspace at Rice University. Photo by Florian Holzherr 

Skyspace is a transformative art experience because it calls on the beauty of nature and the complexity of the human mind to create individual meaning. One visitors experience will be forever different from the next. Perhaps it’s those subtle internal changes that we praise, the quietness of the moment and the awe we feel in our whole bodies.

Upon exiting the Skyspace experience, we came across Sean Monds, the docent coordinator, who trains and manages the student docent team who works for the space throughout the year. He is bombarded by queries about where to sit and how to feel while sitting in the installation. We decided to ask him a few of our own questions about working so closely to such an important work of art:

The Creators Project: What led you to work as a docent for Skyspace? Sean Monds: I am a passionate advocate for James Turrell's work and I sought to work at the space when I moved to Houston three years ago.

You are a music student, how is the Turrell project similar to creating music? I am in the third year of my DMA (Doctorate of Music Arts) at Rice in music composition. Our Skyspace is the only Skyspace that has the capability for sound. It is equipped with an "invisible" 14-channel surround sound system that is embedded into the walls of the space. Although there is no sound during sunrise or sunset (at the artist's request), we use the space for concerts at various times in the year. I was one of the first people to create a site-specific interactive light/sound installation for the space. See this video about it:


If you had the chance to meet James Turrell what would you say to him?

Thank you for your experiential works of art. I would also have to make sure that he was okay with the sound installation that I designed. I tried hard to understand his whole output and philosophy in making my piece, but I hope that he would approve of what I did with his space.

What's the number one question people ask you about the Skyspace experience?
Honestly. "Do I sit upstairs or downstairs?" It is the only two-level Skyspace in the world and this issue does make patrons question where to sit. This isn't a bad thing at all, just the most popular question. Many people ask a variety of other questions about the history of his work or our space.

Do the colors featured have specific names to them? Or is pink, pink and mossy green just green? In the lighting program there are general colors, but I guess color is a matter of our own perception. And in viewing his work, perception is everything. I would say that almost no color is specifically named because a color can be seen in a variety of ways and can change depending on our own focus and attention. What is your favorite piece of information you like to share about Skyspace?
That this work is 40 minutes and it is a composed sequence. I feel that to understand it, one must view it like a movie or a piece of music. We must focus from beginning to end. Coming in the middle of the show, or leaving during the middle, misses the point just as much as it would during a movie or symphony. This is also why we ask people to not use cell phones or video. The work is about our perception and the act of seeing and how these things happen over the course of time. "Time" and "Perception" are important. It is not just one moment after another, but an entire sequence. This is also why no photograph can capture "the work". One must simply come and see the whole sequence.


James Turrell’s “Twilight Epiphany” Skyspace at Rice University. Photo by Florian Holzherr 

To learn more about Skyspace, click here.


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