Experience Sunset: James Turrell’s Skyspace at the Ringling Museum of Art

Imagine staring into a deep dark blue pool of calm water and getting lost in its depth.

Now imagine lying on your back on a floor of a museum and the ‘pool’ is the sky seen through a deftly designed 24-foot square ‘hole’ in the ceiling. Enter Skyspace and experience Joseph’s Coat by James Turrell at the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Florida.

Color photograph

James Turrell. Joseph’s Coat, 2011 © James Turrell, Photo by Giovanni Lunardi.

Turrell’s kinesthetic art is an invitation to experience energy in relation to light, sound, wind, and the canvas of a changing sky by quieting the mind and observing. Opening our senses and our consciousness to the world around and within us, while lying on a bench or the floor to experience the sky, allows and even encourages a transformation of one’s perception.

The brochure given at entry to the sunset experience states; “James Turrell wants you to be aware of your active participation in perception – and see yourself seeing.”

Entering the courtyard of Joseph’s Coat, a gallery lined with long wooden benches felt to me like any other indoor courtyard until I looked up. The ceiling thinned at the opening to the sky. If inverted it could be a sheer dropoff without ledge or dimension. The floor was a slightly inclined square with a perimeter of drains to carry rain away and which double as light tubes for the sunset show.

I placed my mat on the floor between benches and noticed the small-leafed vines that climbed the plaster walls forming elegant green pathways upward. The scent of jasmine vines wrapped around a pillar nearby enlivened the air and brought greenery to the sparse courtyard.

Turrell’s Skyspace draws us in just by looking up, and I found that it offered me a chance to pause, to listen, to feel and yes, to see. The experiential nature of his work including lying on one’s back and watching the sky change, especially brilliant at sunset, is a dance between an artist’s work and the viewer’s evocative experience: the powerful essence of art. There for an hour, relaxing on my mat, hearing my breath, I tried not to fidget. I became mesmerized watching the grey clouds pass over following a strong summer storm. A train whistle in the distance caught my attention, like a Tibetan gong just before meditation.

The post storm breezes moved the clouds quickly and constantly changed the sky as if lifting layer upon layer of veils to reveal finally, a blue sky. A bird, then another, darted through the air on a strong gust followed by a jet’s contrail that curiously, as if on tiptoe, entered the square and moved diagonally from upper right to lower left, thinly sketched as if with a fine-tipped brush, then slowly dissolved by the wind into a series of thick wavy lines. Soon the remaining thick grey clouds thinned to wisps, faded to lighter pink, then to salmon and coral and with the help of the LED lights subtly projected up from the floor and elsewhere I couldn’t discern, the walls changed color too.

Deep ocean – blue sky set in and from the deepest part of the pool, a star, then another glimmered at the edge of the ethereal canvas. Cream to green to red walls and deep dark sky descending. We were entering the night. Or, maybe the night was entering the dozen viewers on the floor and benches of the Skyspace.

“How is it,” I thought to myself, “That this dance is ongoing every millisecond of our lives, at night quietly swirling above us and around us as we work, love, play and sleep? Yet, we are not aware of it.”

The movement and realization of energy, of dynamic molecules, and the give and take of this seemingly innocuous hole to the sky gave me a chance to pause, to listen, to feel and breathe, and yes, to see.

Molecules and light beams, daylight and darkness, starlight and Self and Other. To stare into a pool of space within the dynamic nature of changing light, makes life art and all that is, the world beyond and within us, Art. Clearly, it is a glimpse of the ongoing creative process. I’m a relative newcomer to the art of Mr.Turrell but through my discovery, I am drawn back… or should I say, drawn in again and again.

One can experience Joseph’s Coat Skyspace every day that the Ringling Museum of Art is open and two nights each week for sunset viewing. Yoga mats are encouraged. Check with the museum for specific schedules and details.

By Pamela Erickson, GLIMPSE journal correspondent. Erickson is an author, artist and librarian who lives on the Florida Gulf Coast with her husband and pets. Having taught for over 30 years, she seeks writing as a form of reflection, exploration, conversation and solace. Her novel, Each Other, is available here.


The Benefits of Backwardness

"Heroes." Courtesy of Flickr.com member, Gastev. Sculpture of Don Quixote & Sancho Panza, by Lorenzo Coullaut-Valera (1876-1932). Installed at Place d'Espagne Brussels, Belgium.

From Don Quixote to Seinfeld, there have always been individuals (fictional or real) who behave contrary to the social, cultural and physical norms. Aside from the shock and perhaps humorousness of these acts, are there other reasons for why we are compelled to look at those who do the “wrong” thing in a situation where the “right” choice may seem obvious?

Describing his own unusual adventures surviving a lightning storm atop Gros Ventre Butte in Wyoming, weaving a “behavioral hair shirt,” fording icy creeks on the highest point of the Pacific Coast Trail, and rejecting airplane flight as a means of long-distance travel, GLIMPSE‘s Visions issue contributor and artist Peter Bergman attributes his wanderings not simply to desultory, college-age behavior, but to an important dream-vision-based, coming-of-age ritual rooted in Native American culture. Quoting the anthropologist Victor Turner, Bergman notes of his own behavior: “A normal man acts abnormally because he is obedient to tribal tradition, not out of disobedience to it.”

Find out why those who enact and create images that are counter to a dominant culture, may have more to teach us than we think in GLIMPSE’S upcoming issue, Visions.

Dreaming in Color


Reporter Margaret Talbot takes us along to visit the Maimonides Sleep Arts & Sciences center in Albuquerque to learn about nightmares. Her story begins with a series of case studies detailing patients’ ailments—receptionist Toni, graduate student Yael, flight attendant Joan, widower Ed—are four among many patients who are gripped by quiet terrors once the lights go out. These individuals have all chosen to seek treatment through a fairly new method of clinical dream psychiatry published in 2001 in the Journal of the American Medical Association by Dr. Barry Krakow, the head doctor at Maimonides. Following this treatment method, patients are asked to focus on their nightmares as the source of their problems, contradicting traditional popular Freudian lines of thinking, which names an often traumatic, past, external cause as the nightmare source. Throughout therapy, patients are encouraged to discuss and “rewrite” their nightscapes with a positive twist. The hope is that this positive thinking will trickle into the patient’s dream state and eventually turn nightmares into pleasant dreams.

Relating to color, the article makes note of a study conducted in China by University of California Riverside professor Eric Schwitzgebel and two chinese colleagues Changbing Huang and Yifeng Zhou who confront the question of whether people dream in color, “Most Americans now claim that they dream in color. So did most people who asked themselves that question before the early twentieth century, including Aristotle, Descartes and Freud. But in the middle of the twentieth century most people began reporting that they dreamed in black-and-white.” In Schwitzgebel, Huang and Zhou’s findings individuals who watched color images on television or in film were more apt to dream in colors, “‘dreams may be neither colored nor black and white, leaving the colors of most of their objects unspecified, as novels do. Perhaps it takes time and energy to fill in all the colors in a richly detailed scene, with the result that most of our dream imagery is fairly sketchy.'” Regardless. Dream on.

Image by Flickr member Delphine

Written by Angie Mah