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James Turrell, Skyscape, The Way of Color

Video transcript

(jazz piano) - [Steven] We're in a small building on the land of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in a room, designed by James Turrell, looking out through an oculus, a hole with no glass. - [Beth] And the room itself is circular. The entranceway, narrower at the top, wider at the bottom, the geometries of the space are very simple. - [Steven] It feels so elemental. As we record this, it's six AM. The James Turrell is activated only at dawn and dusk. - [Beth] And as we sit here, the lights that are at the edge of where the stone meets the wall, change color. - [Steven] But it's not so much that the walls change color, but the color of the sky is therefore changed, so right now, I'm looking at this cool yellow-green, and the sky is the most intense, rich, vivid indigo. - [Beth] Moments before the walls were deep greenish yellow, and what we saw through the oculus was a reddish gray, so here, time is an important subject, a very slow movement of sunrise and then also the scale of time, the changing of the lights that Turrell has orchestrated for us. - [Steven] I would argue that there's a 3rd shift of time, which is your own eyes' adjustment, and so it's this interaction between nature, the intervention of the artist, and our own experience. And it's all about this relationship between the color visible, it's only the way in which the frame of the sky has been altered. - [Beth] So what that makes me think about is how everything is contingent, everything is related to everything else around it. It makes me think that there is no one truth, everything is dependent on human vision, on what we bring to it, our own perception. - [Steven] And here, we're talking about the color of the sky. Here we're talking about the earth below. Nothing could be more stable and yet James Turrell, the artist, has unveiled that contingent relationship between us and the world around us. - [Beth] We normally think about works of art as things that are unchanging. Painting in a museum one week is the same painting the next week. And, in a way, that's part of the point about art for centuries, is that it communicated something that was unchanging, that was a truth. - [Steven] That outlived us. - [Beth] Right, and here Turrell has created something, which evolves and changes and looks likely different to you than it does to me. - [Steven] The light has changed again, and now there's this wonderful pink glow inside, and the sky is this deep, sea green. James Turrell's work is usually considered an earth work. That is, it is something that takes nature as its palette instead of paint on canvas. - [Beth] And this was something that artists began to explore in the 1960s, a period when there was increasing attention to human beings' impact on nature and the ways that we were endangering our home, the earth. - [Steven] We're here on a cloudy day, which is creating this very soft sky, and it's in real contrast to the very sharp edge, which I think is really important in Turrell's work. - [Beth] It's very difficult to not see this as an eye itself. The circular shape of the room, two circles inside that, the area of color in the center. I feel like I'm looking with my eyes and in some ways there's an eye that's looking at me. - [Steven] That's an ancient idea and probably the most famous example of that is the Pantheon in Rome with its oculus, and in fact, the word oculus has the room as our English word ocular, and it does in fact mean eye, and there's always been this sense of a relatonship between our vision upward to the heavens and the way in which the eye of God may be looking down at us. - [Beth] Day has begun and we can see outside, and I feel this tension between things that stay the same, the circular spare shape of this room, and the sky that's changing more visibly now as the light has come up, so we're seeing more birds, more clouds that pass, so that there's this tension between stillness and movement. (jazz piano)