S is for…Skyspace

By Vita Forest

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While visiting our friend Fleur in Canberra, we made a pilgrimage to the National Gallery to experience once again James Turrell’s Skyspace. 

It is an art work but also an experience.  Although it is open during the day, it is best visited at dawn or dusk, as that is when you get the extra dimension of colour.

In the fading light of sunset, Fleur, Max, Lucy and I passed through the gate behind the gallery and across a paved bridge over some water.  The paved path continues across grass and descends down, becoming a ramp, down below the level of the tiny lake that encircles a grassy pyramid (nicely reflected on the surface of the water).  If you walk slowly, you can look out across the water at eye level – a vantage point I don’t normally see, so of course I stop and look and admire.

You descend below the water level, below ground level and pass across another boundary and enter the pyramid.  It is grassy on the outside, but inside, surprisingly coloured in a chalky, pink render, it’s sloping walls opening to the sky.  At this point, the feeling of passing into another zone is encouraged by the increasing sound of flowing water, which completely blocks the noise of outside, as the walls of the pyramid completely block the sight of it.  Inside the pyramid, the path splits and you walk either left or right around a turquoise-coloured infinity pool, over whose edges water pours continually.  And in the very centre of the pool, (again not visible until you have crossed the threshold and entered the pyramid) rises a domed building, completely enclosed within the pyramid.  It is build from shards of stone, slotted together cunningly without any obvious joining materials, like a dry stone wall or a ancient cairn.  You marvel at its walls, rising and curving upwards as you walk around the pool, before coming to another “bridge”, this one crossing the pool and leading you into the dome.

Another surprise.  You enter a large but cosy room, walls white with a generous ledge running the entire length of the walls from one side of the doorway to the other.  This is for sitting or even lying on.  You sit down on the bench and lean your back into the comforting curve of the dome and look up.

There appears to be a hole in the smoothly arching roof (or wall – where does one end and one begin?) or is it a disc?  But then a plane streaks a white line across the blue, and you realise that you are, in fact, looking up at the sky.

It’s very lovely at any time, but if you go at dawn or dusk you will also be treated to a subtle light show projected onto the roof of the dome, that changes as the sky outside lightens or darkens.  You have to slow down and watch and be right there to see the colours change from pink to blue to green to purple.

Max leaned his phone of the side of the bench and took a time-lapse film of it, but when you are there, you hardly see the change until it has happened.  One colour slowly and imperceptibly fades into another.

The changing colours of Skyspace

The changing colours of Skyspace

James Turrell’s art is all about colour and light.  He strips away all other distractions so you can focus on these elements.  Depending on who else is in the dome, it can be serene and spiritual or voluble and excited.  (Saskia was frustrated on a previous visit when she wanted the former and got the latter…)  Our experience this time was fairly silent – I took “silent” photos on my phone, raising my hand in salute every few minutes.  Fleur was amused and sent me a text –  It’s almost religious, even though we sat only a couple of metres apart.  Lucy wandered in and out of the dome, comparing the colour of the sky with and without its ring of colour.  Max slouched back against the wall and checked the progress of his filming.

Some of the colours of Skyspace

Some of the colours of Skyspace

All the mechanics are hidden.  The light source enclosed in a tiny lip that ran above our heads, the water draining away into a hidden cavity beneath the walls of the pool, and our way out lit by strip lights shining from deep in the recesses beneath the walls.  Best of all, in winter you are not distracted by the bitter temperatures because the bench inside the dome appears to be heated or insulated…  You feel warm and cosy despite sitting inside a stone building whose roof opens to the elements…

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