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Five Elements of Contemporary Art: Space: James Turrell's Sky Pesher, 2005


Walker Art Center



Institution Walker Art Center



James Turrell was born in Los Angeles in 1942. His college studies included perceptual psychology, mathematics, and art—subjects that continue to inform his artistic practice today. In the 1960s, Turrell became part of the California Light and Space group, a collective of artists who produced artworks as pure visual experiences, rather than as images or objects, often incorporating such materials as glass, phosphorescent materials, and acrylic. With this group, Turrell experimented with using high-intensity projected light as a physical material. The artist’s sculptural and architectural installations, created for indoor and outdoor spaces, offer viewers an experience of total immersion vastly different from an encounter with an artwork in a typical gallery space. In one of his works, an electric beam offers the illusion of a wall; in another series, which he refers to as Skyspaces, an outdoor room with a large opening in the ceiling offers a view of the ever-changing sky.

One of Turrell’s major Skyspace projects is the excavation of the Roden Crater, an extinct volcano in the Arizona desert. He has been transforming this huge site into a celestial observatory for more than 30 years. Once it is finished, viewers will enter the volcano to observe reflections of the sun, moon, and starlight on the crater walls. He describes the power of this work as actually “changing the shape of the sky.” Influenced by the majesty of nature as well as the awe-inspiring great cathedrals, Turrell is drawn to the spiritual in art and ways that it can be expressed with light and space.

Sky Pesher, 2005 sits in the sloping green space behind the Walker Art Center, half underground, similar to a bunker. A path leads down into a room with a heated concrete shelf for seating on three sides. The focus is a 16-square-foot rectangle cut from the curving white ceiling, its sharp edges framing a section of the sky. Seated viewers lean back against the slanted walls to gaze up at the opening through which an infinite space that changes throughout each moment of every day and season is visible. The freestanding structure combines natural and artificial light with computer-controlled sensors activated just before sunrise and sunset. The walls and ceiling seem to fade away while light fills the space, which the artist calls “bringing the sky down.” Turrell describes Sky Pesher, 2005 as a metaphor for introspection and meditation. The word “pesher” means “commentary,” particularly those used in Jewish religious texts. Thus the piece offers a commentary on the sky, or according to the artist, “a book of the sky.” Like much of Turrell’s work, this Skyspace reminds us that we create our own reality as we experience the world through our senses.

1.    How does the artist change the way we see the color of the sky? Read the quote by Turrell. What does he mean by “the context of vision”?
2.    If Turrell considers color, light, and sky as materials for his works, how large is the space this sculpture occupies?
3.    What types of places are used for meditation? How does this artwork inspire introspection?
4.    What does the idea of a “book of the sky” mean to you? How can you “read” the sky? Try using this metaphor in a poem, drawing, or sculpture of your own.

The manipulation of two- and three-dimensional space has always been a part of art-making. For centuries, painters have sought to create an illusion of space that mirrored the depth and perspective of the real world. Traditional sculptors created forms that were most often limited to objects placed upon a pedestal. In contemporary practice, art is not only placed on the wall or a pedestal but also can sit on the floor, hang from the ceiling, or fill an entire room or gallery. Sometimes a single work requires the viewer to enter an artificial environment—indoors or outdoors. An artwork such as a mobile might shift through space seemingly by itself. Likewise, a work in the form of a swing, a slide, or a tunnel can cause the viewer to move from one place to another. Contemporary media art may exist in virtual space, such as the Internet, or in conceptual spaces that include imaginary places and the limitless universe.

“We think of color as a thing that we’re receiving. And if you go into one of the Skyspaces, you can see that it’s possible to change the color of the sky. Now, I obviously don’t change the color of the sky, but I changed the context of vision.”  —James Turrell, PBS Art 21, 2001

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Type: Instructional Material
Grades: 4-Adult
Instructional Method: Classroom Discussion
Rights: © 2008 Walker Art Center
Added to Site: June 8, 2010