Lighting a Turrell Skyspace

John Hill
18. September 2018
Photo: Florian Holzherr

James Turrell's Skyspace Lech opened to the public on 17 September 2018 near the village of Lech am Arlberg in the high mountains of Austria's Vorarlberg province. The largely underground, oval space is open to the sky and illuminated on the inside with Zumtobel fixtures and controls.

Project: Skyspace Lech, 2018
Location: Vorarlberg, Austria
Client: Horizon Field
Artist: James Turrell
Architect: Baumschlager Eberle
Manufacturer: Zumtobel
Products: Amber LED stripe with RGB color changing function and a tunable white stripe; Luxmate DMX controls system
Photographs: Florian Holzherr, © James Turrell

Photo: Florian Holzherr

Any visit to a James Turrell Skyspace is a memorable experience. My first visit to one was Tending, (Blue) at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, Texas, though the most amazing experience I had at one was at The Way of Color at Crystal Bridges in Bentonville, Arkansas. On my visit there I was treated to the full light show that takes place for a half-hour around sunset. While many people may experience Turrell's Skyspaces — square, round, or oval rooms with a similarly shaped aperture to the sky — simply as ways of looking at the sky, the artist has created each as immersive perceptual experiences that relies upon the artificial lighting cast upon the walls. So to watch a light show like at The Way of Color is to see, for instance, the sky change color instantly as the lights inside the space do the same. Put deeper, it is to learn that our perception affects the color of the sky, or as Turrell puts it, "We seem not to be aware that we ourselves consign the sky its color. We think that everything is predetermined; however, we do play an active part in creating the reality in which we live."

Photo: Florian Holzherr

Skyspace Lech is nestled between hiking trails and alpine passes within the stunning mountains of Vorarlberg. The oval Skyspace is reached by a tunnel whose entry frames a view of Biberkopf peak (photo above) and is aligned to the summer solstice. At the other end of the tunnel is the Sensing Room, as the Skyspace is called, which has an elliptical opening in its roof to frame the sky. The perimeter of the space has continuous seating with tall backs that conceal the lighting for the walls. These features are all fairly standard in Turrell's Skyspaces, if slightly different from place to place, but what separates Skyspace Lech from others is the movable dome designed with Baumschlager Eberle. When open, the viewer senses color with the sky as a reference, but when the dome is closed it is used to project the "Ganzfeldraum." Here, per the Skyspace Lech website, "the perception of the viewer is then irritated and distorted. The previously illuminated room and its clear structure dissolves." If a typical Turrell light show is immersive, the Ganzfeldraum must be transcendental.

Photos: Florian Holzherr

Skyspace Lech is the latest collaboration between Turrell and Zumtobel, who have worked together for more than 20 years. This makes sense. Where other artists might have relationships with, say, paint suppliers or foundries, an artist whose medium is light needs to collaborate with lighting companies. At Skyspace Lech, Zumtobel developed an amber LED strip with RGB color changing function and a tunable white stripe that was programmed in advance with Turrell. The installation is regulated by a Luxmate DMX controls system, while, per a press release from Zumtobel, "opal diffusers have been chosen to make the lighting transition from the beginning of the passageway to the actual Skypace room as gentle as possible." The dramatic effect is visible in the photos of the Skyspace here. Of course that drama is slight compared to a visit in person — always recommended when the chance arises.

Photos: Florian Holzherr

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