When a bird flew inches above our oval cutout, some of us gasped and then laughed at our response. Our slowly changing focal point had shifted suddenly and shot us out of a relaxed, contemplative state and back to the reality that we were staring at something ever-changing, yet accessible: the sky.
If you haven’t visited James Turrell’s Skyspace titled The Color Inside, you may not understand the full thrill of the bird sighting. Turrell’s art piece is an incredible permanent space located on the rooftop of the Student Activity Center on UT’s campus. The Color Inside was commissioned by Landmarks, UT’s public art program, and describing the piece isn’t an easy task.
You enter a white, curvilinear structure to find a black basalt bench outlining the interior. The seating reclines, allowing up to 25 visitors to face an elliptical sky cutout (an oculus).
Surrounding the sky are hidden LED lights that run through a color sequence at sunset. Colors morph slowly and grow from a watercolor wash to a bold intensity.
The sky itself changes color with the setting sun, but also with the contrasting colors appearing around it.
The sequence runs for about an hour, and it feels increasingly dreamlike.
Though you aren’t looking at a representation of light, but simply light itself, the oculus can sometimes still be mistaken for a painting. The world becomes simplified to a small section of the sky, but nothing feels confined, and sometimes it’s very easy to forget that you’re gazing at something as vast and common as a sunset.
Some people leave early on in the sequence, but others really plug in to the fascinating, yet rather simple, experience.
James Turrell’s fascination with light stems from his upbringing as a Quaker. Quakers stress the importance of an Inner Light, and George Fox, their founder, often spoke about the power of light both literally and figuratively. Turrell also has a background in perceptual psychology and experience as a pilot, so his relationship with light varies from spiritual, to philosophical, to practical. He learned how to draw from light’s powerful implications to create his pieces, and in the 60s and 70s, Turrell became a very influential artist in the Southern California Light and Space movement.
Turrell’s work spans from light projections, sensory deprivation installations, and fields of light, to the famous Skyspaces.
Turrell has created over 80 Skyspaces throughout the world. But they differ greatly, and each has its own personality. There are two in Houston, one at Rice University and one at a Quaker meetinghouse. The Skyspace at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas closed in 2012 after Turrell deemed it destroyed by a newly built luxury condo that obstructs the view of the sky.
The birth of the Austin Skyspace somewhat snuck under the radar because, during the time of its construction, Turrell had three simultaneous retrospectives at the Guggenheim in New York City, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Museum of Fine Arts Houston.
Turrell’s success has skyrocketed, and he recently received the 2013 National Medal of Arts Award from President Obama. Turrell has also been working on a major project outside of Flagstaff, Arizona called the Roden Crater Project. He began working on it in 1974. Eventually, an extinct volcano will be transformed into a large naked-eye observatory.
The Skyspace is free, but reservations are required for the sunset sequence. Reservations are made here.
Some nights you may be able to attend on standby. There is also a sunrise sequence, but it can only be seen a few times a year since the Student Activity Center opens at 7 AM on weekdays and later on weekends.
The space can be viewed without the light sequence any time the Center is open.
No photography is allowed, and it’s courteous to remain mostly quiet so visitors may reflect in their own way. The Skyspace experience will differ every night due to the weather. The space is not air conditioned, and the sequence still takes place in the rain. You will probably get wet in that case, though I hear it’s especially beautiful with raindrops falling through.
Student Activity Center rooftop garden, The University of Texas at Austin
2201 Speedway, Austin, Texas 78712 (22nd Street and Speedway)
Parking is available in the Brazos Garage, located at 210 E. MLK Blvd.
Kelli McDonald is an artist and writer living with a surly, polydactyl cat named Moyra. If you want to see what Kelli’s up to, follow her on Instagram at @MadameKLM.