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James Turrell Illuminates a Memorial Chapel in a Berlin Cemetery

The prolific light artist designed a light program which capitalizes on the city's stunning sunsets.
July 22, 2016, 2:50pm

A photo posted by Kori Williams (@korimwilliams) on Jul 17, 2016 at 10:53pm PDT

What better way to memorialize the dead than with a serene, contemplative light installation by James Turrell? The prolific light artist currently has a show on view in Berlin, inside the memorial chapel of the Dorotheenstadt Cemetery. Turrell customized the interior architecture of the chapel to optimize the light program. The result, a one-hour light show designed to coincide with sunset, is spooky and peaceful, muted and playfully neon.


For two hours around 9pm, when the sun sets in Berlin summers, the chapel’s LEDs play a game with the fading light outside. To accommodate the viewers’ low attention span, the viewing period, which includes a 30-minute art historical talk in German, is reduced to just one hour.

As viewers enter the chapel, it glows in a rich blue. When the program begins, the altar slowly cycles through a number of color changes every two minutes. For the second half of the program, as the sun outside really begins to set, the altar continues to change colors, while the main section of the church also changes from blue to magenta. An optical illusion makes the sunset’s light, coming in through the opaque windows, appear amber when the chapel is lit in blue, and green when it glows magenta.

After the program is over, the church appears even more radiant, now a glowing structure in the dark cemetery.

A photo posted by Xenia Sarapoff (@xeniasarapoff) on May 15, 2016 at 1:55am PDT

The history of the chapel is foggy, but it’s estimated that it was originally built in 1927 or 1928. No documents remain that reveal how it originally looked. In 2015, however, Berlin-based architect Nedelykov Moreira remodeled the chapel, giving the interior a clean, modern, minimal look: the perfect stage for Turrell’s site-specific neon lights. The small chapel has a straightforward layout, with rows of pews flanked by floor-to-ceiling opaque glass windows, which are ornamented with glass fins that enhance the light installation.


The design minimizes the shade to nearly none, and the LED lights are hidden inside the architecture, so light seems to appear from nowhere. At the front of the chapel is a rectangular altar, in front of a smooth, arched apse.

A photo posted by Tekla Evelina Severin (@teklan) on Jun 6, 2016 at 1:52pm PDT

For the Dorotheenstadt Chapel, Turrell designed 10 light programs. Eight unique static programs douse the space in shades of white light, while the altar is illuminated in different symbolic colors: red for the Pentecost, violent for the Advent, or white for Christmas and Easter. These are functional programs, on view only during memorial ceremonies. During normal days, a “daylight loop” cycles through 11 different-colored light moods. But on select days during sunset, the non-religious public can come inside and see the specially-designed sunset program.

Besides the memorial chapel, the Dorotheenstadt Cemetery holds a monument to Nazi resistance fighters, and is the resting place of a number of 18th and 19th century German cultural figures, like author Bertholt Brecht, philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, or architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel. Turrell is quite literally shining a light on these and other contributors to Germany’s cultural and historical heritage.

A photo posted by Anja Künstler (@anjakuenstler) on Feb 7, 2016 at 2:15am PST

A photo posted by Richard Christiansen (@chandeliercreative) on Jun 28, 2016 at 1:00pm PDT


James Turrell’s light installation at the Dorotheenstadt Cemetery Memorial Chapel is on view every Saturday and Monday, beginning 30 minutes before sunset. Find out more information on the cemetery’s website, and buy tickets here.


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