My first encounter with James Turrell came in 1994, when I first entered Space that Sees, a square chamber, roughly 25' per side, carved into a small hillside at Jerusalem's Israel Museum. Space that Sees has a rectangular aperture cut into the ceiling; the effect when one enters the space and looks up is of the sky itself being framed as art. We are called to pay attention to changes we would ordinarily ignore; in the context of minutes of undisturbed blue sky, or the gentle movement of the clouds, the flight of a bird overhead becomes a shocking, delightful occurrence. And as the sky changes with the hours, we observe its slowly changing colors as the dynamic evolution of a cosmic work of art.
Space that Sees is what Turrell calls a "sky piece." It, like Unseen Blue at the Mattress Factory and Meeting at New York's P.S. 1, is intended to be a place where "sky and Earth meet." On a purely aesthetic level, these spaces are exquisite, and Turrell is interested, throughout his art, in an aesthetic experience of the phenomenon of light. Yet "sky and Earth meeting" are the same terms in which one of my early teachers, Rabbi Yosef Leibowitz, described the project of Jewish religious practice: to bring together the shamayim (heaven/infinite/perfect/One) and aretz (earth/finite/apparently imperfect and multiple). I asked Turrell whether he was intentionally creating 'spiritual' art, or whether I (along with many of his other fans) were, as far as he was concerned, missing the point.
"It's an interesting question," Turrell told me. "I think art can bring one to
a 'spiritual' vision. But it can't capture it, because the type of art that I
make is involved with perception, and the spirit is beyond perception."
Yet even as he seemed to suggest that his art was a contemplative means rather than an end,
Turrell added that his intention is to provide a "direct experience of
the physicality of light," and noted that light has
been both a metaphor for and a point of contact with
the 'spirit' in nearly every culture, West and East, North and South.
So by conveying the "truth of light" (another of his terms), Turrell's
work is not merely providing an impetus for Spirit but embodying the presence of Spirit itself, at least as understood nearly
universally, yet without any reference
to the bathetic clichés of religious language.
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