Seeing the Light: From Context to Feature

We are struck by the privilege of being academically housed adjacent to a Turrell skyspace, “Dividing the Light”. This piece features a square occulus held up by sleek metallic pillars that is surrounded by feathery ferns, twenty trees, grasses, and other greenery.  Below the occulus is a reflection pond that somewhat mirrors the shape and images above it.

The experience of “dividing the light” is nothing short of extraordinary.  Beyond the visual foundation, the multisensory experience is in part kinesthetic, auditory, and olfactory.  While we sit below gazing up at the occulus, directing our gaze towards the heavens we can’t help but feel a kinesthetic reminder of some spirituality whether personal or religious.  The ‘act’ of gazing upwards is familiar, but not so familiar as to be commonplace.  One also experiences the cooling and calming sounds of water, as the water gently spills over the infinity edge of the reflection pool.  The barely detectable aromas stemming from the foliage also contribute to the experience.

Beyond the broad range of sensory experiences, one can’t help but notice the context in which Skyspace is located. This piece is housed in the courtyard of academic buildings containing the departments of psychology, neuroscience, cognitive science, geology, ethnic studies, and environmental sciences.  When Turrell was an undergraduate at Pomona, he studied perceptual psychology and math.  So, the academic context is only fitting; the school celebrates an alumnus.

The social context in which the piece and other Turrell works are appreciated also deserves mention.  During the day, it is not unusual to see a solitary student sitting among the water, trees, and light.  The quieting stimuli are conducive to reading, writing, and thinking.  In any one day, one also might see small groups meeting within the space.  On campus, it has become a destination point, a meeting spot for friends, a coveted event locale for receptions -- and a midnight dip under the occulus has become a ritual of graduating students.  By night, “Dividing the Light” is frequented and enjoyed by neighborhood folk as well as those who travel long, sometimes international, distances to appreciate the Turrell work.  At times, the evening illumination is consumed in thoughtful reflection.  At other times, the small crowds react with “Oooohs”, “Aaaahs”, and even applause!

Both of us pass by the piece many times a day. These multiple encounters bring us to understand the piece, what it presents to us, and how it modifies the context it occupies.  Context is experienced in different ways, and this varies systematically across cultures.  For example, people from East Asian cultures tend to focus more attention on background or contextual cues than people from North American and Western Europe who tend to focus more deliberately on the foreground object.  In this cultural interpretation, Turrell shifts what are typically contextual features to the foreground as a featured object in his art.  Take the Roden Crater.  Here, the dormant volcano in Central Arizona is the locale where people come to see the art.  Remarkably, Turrell has transformed the geography to create an artwork from the location itself which would more typically be understood as the context rather than the object of central focus.

Turrell shifts the context in another way with respect to light in this and many of his other works.  He uses light as a medium of art rather than as the means for perceiving artworks. Instead of paint, stone, clay, or other solid materials his "material" is the light itself. How can this be? Light is not visible -- it makes other things visible. We can sense changes in the light but normally changes in the light are irrelevant or even distracting. It is merely a contextual, background element.  Our visual system operates in such a way that it compensates for changes in the illuminant. By using light as the medium rather than simply as a necessary element in seeing art, Turrell brings the background to the foreground and the context of seeing to the object of perception.

Turrell's way of getting us to see the light exploits some characteristics of visual perception, among them the very mechanisms that compensate for changes in the light so that normally we do not notice it.

One of these mechanisms is responsible for color contrast effects. If a patch of pure color is placed on a background of another color, it will shift from its appearance against a white background toward the complement of the background color. If the patch were white, for example, putting it on a red background would cause it to look greenish, in fact greenish in the exact hue of green that is the complement of the red background. If the patch placed on the red background were yellow, the resulting color would be a greenish yellow – the result of mixing yellow and green. The Skyspace frames a patch of sky in a homogeneous surround. The piece of sky we see through the hole in the ceiling is colored by the complement of the surround color. The sky then functions as though it were a patch of color on a background.  Through colored illumination effects, Turrell changes the context of the sky by coloring the white frame of the occulus.  This in turns creates skies that appear deep red, white, purple etc.  Jacob Albers explored this phenomenon in his book Interaction of Color.  His book may be familiar to art students because it was used to generate exercises to enhance sensitivity to contextual color effects for generations of art students. The Turrell piece demonstrates Albers effects on a grand scale.

The other effect of the Skyspace is turning the patch of sky seen through the aperture into a film color. Color has characteristics other than simply hue, saturation, and lightness. There is a family of spatial qualities that result from how color is perceived to exist in the world. Without these qualities color would be nothing more than an abstract quality. The spatial attributes give it substance. We have vision because it gives information about the world, information that has the mundane function of letting us get about without stumbling over things. No one has been able to explain why vision brings beauty as well as function. Some configurations of color, like sunsets, are unusually splendid. The beauty of the visual world seems to be a gift, with no obvious explanation.

There are three main types of spatial attributes of color. The most obvious is surface color. If color comes from paint or dye on a surface, it is seen as being at a certain place – the surface -- and as having a certain texture given by the character of the surface. Surface color is simply taken as the color of objects. We know that the inside of an apple is not red, only the skin, but we would say the color of the apple ios red.

Volume color is seen when a space is filled with color. This would happen when a translucent material is colored. Volume color is seen not as being on a surface but as extended in three dimensions, and sometimes as defining a shape. Colored smoke would be a volume without a shape, or at least not a defined, enduring shape. The amber color seen in a glass of beer has shape as well as volume.

A third appearance of color is known as film color. The surface of a bubble is a film, and if it had color, the color would be a film color. Film colors are rarely noticed in nature and do not have the useful significance of surface colors, which tell us the shapes of things. Even volume colors are useful because at least they help us to distinguish muddy water from something we might walk on.

Film color may not be particularly useful to us in getting around in the world, but it is a captivating part of the experience of the Skyspace. Through the occulus the sky above the aperture can look like a film that covers the opening, as if the sky were really a piece of colored glass mounted in the ceiling, illuminated from behind. This kind of “film” is more interesting than bubbles because it is a perceptual construction by the visual system, an illusion. There is no material at all in the occulus.

The eye sees the sky as an illusory film because the edges of the occulus mark off a section of sky. The sky is so far away that its distance is indeterminate. Normally vision has a number of tricks it uses to tell how far away something is. The two eyes provide stereo cues, but the sky is much, much too far away for stereo vision to measure the distance. Other cues include interposition: if something is between my eyes and the object, that thing is closer to me than the object. There are many other such cues, but the height of the sky can’t be accurately measured with any of them. However, the sharp edges of the occulus provide a reference point -- a context, so to speak, for the sky. If the sky has no clouds it may seem to have moved right down to the top of the Skyspace. Clouds complicate the film a bit because they do provide a depth cue termed parallax. When moving about while looking up at a cloud through the occulus we see the cloud move relative to the edges. This relative motion can cause the sky to pop back up to where it is normally seen, but usually it makes for more interesting visual experience. Rather than describe some of the effects of film color in the Skyspace, we invite you to come and look for yourself.

The Skyspace stands in our courtyard, an enigma yet a unifying presence. Much like Turrell himself, it offers no explanation. It is up to the viewer to discover it, to be patient and let the experience unfold. Sometimes more is said when there are no words. With quiet viewing and an open eye, one will see the light.