I had the distinct pleasure of being at an inspiring lecture this evening by the artist James Turrell, speaking at a peace event put on by the Friends Seminary on 15th Street. Turrell is a Quaker who has spent his whole artistic career depicting light as physical entity with shape and texture and thickness. He spoke simply this evening about how he has tried to get people to experience light in new ways, through beautiful and elegant art pieces that have shown all over the world.
I’m still reeling from the experience.
Turrell has a large installation at the PS1 art museum in Queens that
looks a lot like a Quaker meeting room, a simple square room with a
bench running along the walls. The difference is that, weather
permitting, the roof is open to the sky, the ceiling acting as frame to
the sky as canvas. I’ve been meaning to visit this space for awhile,
but haven’t gotten around to it.
Photo credit : Bob Baldridge
He’s also known among Quakers for designing the Live Oaks Friends Meeting House in Houston that similarly incorporates "skyspace" into the structure. I’d love to attending meeting there in the open air with the sun streaming in.
But Turrell’s life’s work makes all of his other projects seem trivial. He has somehow managed to get hold of an entire crater in Arizon called Roden Crater that he has spent the last nearly 30 years transforming into an enormous installation. A series of tunnels and interior chambers allow the viewer to experience the starry sky in new and profound ways. He is likely to pass away before it is completed.
No matter, Turrell takes the long view. And when I say long view, I don’t mean 50 or 100 years from now. He says that he designed the installation to be at peak viewing location (given the relative motion of the stars) in 2,000 years. This way, even visitors 4,000 years from now will get an equally "bad" view of the heavens from Roden Crater.
This way of seeing light strikes as being so very Quakerish. We often speak of God as the Light, we hold people in the Light, some of us "greet the Light," as Turrell says. So to help people to more deeply experience light is in some ways helping them experience the divine.
Despite the grandeur of the projects he has undertaken, he seems unpretentious about his accomplishments. "I make a living selling blue sky and colored air," he explains. Sounds like a great gig, if you can get it.