When you spot a man with the word ‘LIGHT’ inscribed on his shirt, you know something’s up. In the case of James Turrell, the genial Californian genius, it is more than apt, as light has been his medium for decades. Not everyone can make it to his monumental Roden Crater, in Arizona, where he’s been exploring skyscapes for over 40 years, but anyone in the UK this summer should go to Houghton Hall, in Norfolk.
Before continuing, I’ll quote 72-year old Turrell himself, “My work is about space and the light that inhabits it. It is about how you can confront that space and plumb it. It is about your seeing, like the wordless thought that comes from looking into a fire.”
That’s just about the gist of his supremely complex works, holograms and light projections into which you feel you melt. Complex – yet highly spiritual, echoing a Quaker upbringing focusing on the sublime.
The exhibiton, LightScape: James Turrell at Houghton (June 7 to October 24, 2015), supplements two major Turrell pieces already in situ. These were purchased by a particularly en-light-ened English aristo, David, Marquess of Cholmondeley, who is owner of this Palladian pile.
Here’s his first Turrell, above, the wonderful Seldom Seen Skyspace (2002), inside which a roof aperture frames changes in light and, as this is England, in cloud.
We sat inside in contemplative silence mid-afternoon, then later returned to watch as dusk deepened the sky to cobalt blue in infinitesimal stages. As the artist said, twilight is mankind’s perfect moment…
Benches lining the pure white room beneath an overhang reminded me of the first Turrell piece I ever ‘participated’ in back in 1991, in Poitiers. Heavy Water was a similar skyspace chamber to this, the difference being that it enclosed water, and you had to swim under the outer walls to access the inner sanctum. Hard work for art’s sake – plus we had to don 1920s-style striped bathing suits to maintain a strict visual harmony.
When I mentioned this experience to Turrell, he grunted and said several of the swimsuits had been lifted. Enfin, so French!
Houghton Hall’s other original piece, St Elmo’s Breath, is impossible to photograph as it consists of a pitch black room in which the subtle forms of light panels only become gradually visible. It’s attached to an 18th century folly that stands in a splendid perspective at the end of a long allée and ha-ha (above). Turrell actually commented on his love for English follies, so I’d imagine this is one of his favourite sites. Here’s a closer view with an art critic escaping.
Other Turrells are installed inside the massive stables complex and in the main house itself, like this very early one, Raethro Red (1969) which gives a beautiful diffused glow to the entire room. Intangible, yet it appears solid.
Not surprisingly, this mesmerising piece below, Shirim (2015) was targeted by a fly – here’s a flunkey trying to knock it away. Even with the fly, it is stunning to watch it slowly morph into different hues and rectangles – also technically baffling.
Houghton Hall abounds in unexpected contrasts, from hundreds of Fallow deer grazing contentedly in the meadows outside, to an expansive walled garden with abundant English flower-beds and a spectacular wisteria walk. Beyond the walls unfold vast, verdant lawns and pockets of idyllic woodland.
Suddenly, lost in the woods, we came across a beautiful piece by Stephen Cox (above), its glossy marble mirroring the surrounding tree trunks.
Then came another beauty, Richard Long’s Full Moon Circle, a generous circle of overlapping slate aligned with the 300-year old house.
I loved this journey in time and in perception, but by now twilight had advanced – bringing us back to the front of the enormous west façade. Then came Turrell’s coup de grace, a multiple illumination in a prolonged series of mutating colours. Powerful stuff – magic?