As a practicing Quaker and a conscientious objector in the late 1950s, the teenage James Turrell fulfilled his obligatory stint in the military by performing alternative service, which in his case meant secret missions in unmarked planes in South Asia, transporting dissident Tibetans to safety in neighboring nations. Flying small aircraft over monumental religious compounds such as Angkor Wat, Borobudur, and Pagan, Turrell came to have a deep appreciation for the way such sacred architecture attempts to forge a literal and symbolic communion between the earth and the heavens. The artist himself has achieved that communion in the ongoing series of architectural installations called “Skyspaces.”
Turrell’s most recent Skyspace, Second Wind (2005–9), is among the largest of the nearly 40 completed since he began the series in the ’70s. Inaugurated last month at Montenmedio Contemporary Art in Vejer de la Frontera in southern Spain, Second Wind consists of two structures—a domed stupa within a truncated pyramid—semi-interred within the gentle Andalusian countryside. Visitors enter through a short tunnel at one corner of the pyramid; inside the pyramid’s reddish, sloping walls, the black stupa rises from a pool of flowing water. The stupa’s hollow white interior contains benches arranged in a four-square formation, and a circular hole cut out from its curved roof opens to the sky. The stupa’s inner walls are lined with LEDs and neon lights that are programmed to change according to the time of day and the ambient light, having two effects on the viewer’s visual perception: the circular patch of sky seems to lower dramatically, almost to the point where one might reach out and touch it, and the sky itself appears to change color before one’s very eyes.
“We award the sky its color,” Turrell told ARTnews during a visit to the Second Wind site. “We learn to perceive—we create what we perceive. And so by extension we shape our reality. This learned perception, which is something we all share, has always intrigued me. It is what I try to capture.”
While explicitly derived from Buddhist and Hindu sacred architecture, Turrell’s Skyspaces—and by extension all his light-based work—can also be seen as an outgrowth of his Quaker upbringing and ongoing observance. Quaker meeting houses are devoid of all religious imagery, with neither altars nor liturgy nor hymns to guide the participants’ attention as they commune in collective silence. Instead, as Turrell’s grandmother explained to him when he was a boy, when attending a Quaker meeting one should “go inside and meet the light.”
“I want people to treasure light the way we treasure gold,” Turrell says. “It happens slowly. The space is made to arrest the light, to apprehend the light. You enter it and remain alert, but you also enter a contemplative state. It means a lot less talk and a lot more silence.”
Montenmedio Contemporary Art is the brainchild of Jimena Blázquez, a 35-year-old native of the region and former curator at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center in New York. Within the grounds of a sprawling golf and horseback-riding resort owned by Blázquez’s family, the 75-acre open-air museum was launched in 2001 with a presentation of site-specific sculptures by Sol LeWitt, Marina Abramovic, Susana Solano, and Richard Nonas. Since then works have been added by Olafur Eliasson, Santiago Sierra, Gregor Schneider, and many others. Run by a private foundation, which receives public and private sponsorship, the site attracts about 30,000 visitors annually, who are given a map of the grounds and left to find the artworks discreetly placed amid olive trees, scrub oaks, wildflowers, and migrating birds, all within sight of North Africa.
“We are situated at a crossroads here: between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, between Europe and Africa, between different cultures and civilizations,” Blí¡zquez told ARTnews. “It creates a very special energy, a frontier energy, maybe a bit like Texas. It’s a kind of meeting place. James’s work fits in perfectly.”
Second Wind, which was created in collaboration with Paris-based lighting engineer Erick Helaine, took three years to complete at a cost of approximately €1 million (about $1.3 million), according to Blázquez. Turrell has more than 25 additional Skyspaces planned or under construction around the world, as well as the monumental Roden Crater, built from an extinct volcano in Arizona’s painted desert. And the James Turrell Museum, with nine major installations as well as drawings and prints, recently opened in Colomé, Argentina, on vineyards owned by Swiss collector Donald Hess.
“Basically I sell blue sky and colored air,” Turrell says. “Back in the giddy days of economic ridiculousness, those who were responsible for the current financial crisis were selling blue sky, too. But at least I deliver!”
George Stolz is the Madrid correspondent for ARTnews.