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.

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Eat Your Carrots! The Chemistry of Vision

 

18th-century hand-colored etching of woman pushing wheelbarrow full of carrots.

“Sandwich Carrots-Dainty Sandwich Carrots.” Hand-colored etching. Gillray, James, 1756-1815, engraver. Published by H. Humphrey, 1796 Dec 3d, London.
Image courtesy of Library of Congress.

You’ve probably heard the old adage about eating carrots for good vision. Well, there is some truth to it. Carrots contain a high concentration of β-carotene which gets broken down in the intestines to form the aldehyde (hydrocarbon) form of vitamin A, cis-retinal. Vision deteriorates in the absence of vitamin A because cis-retinal is trafficked along the protein, opsin, to produce electrochemical signals from light.

Our retinas perceive light in tiny particles called photons. As soon as these photons hit the retina, they isomerize cis-retinal to trans-retinal.  Trans-retinal then bonds to opsin to form rhodopsin. Rhodopsin is a purple pigment in the photoreceptor cells of the retina that reads blue-green light. This is the first step of the phototransduction cycle where photon energy is transferred to a series of signaling and diffusing protein complexes.

Retinal isomerism drawn with ChemDraw

Mutated forms of rhodopsin will be folded and transported differently and could lead to deteriorated vision or blindness. In more rare cases, mutations can cause rhodopsin to be constantly activated, even in the absence of light. Hypersensitivity, autoimmune disorders, and mutations can all cause rod cells in the retina to undergo apoptosis or cellular self-destruction. This sort of degradation of the retina will ultimately lead to deteriorated vision and eventually blindness.

The absorbance of cis-retinal is optimized at approximately 100 nanometers less than rhodopsin and it is a very rigid molecule because of the arrangement of its double bonds. Thanks to isomerism, we can see in color as opposed to ultraviolet! As all of the above demonstrates, our ability to see involves a series of complicated and precisely regulated bio-chemical processes, and carrots play their role.

We will be exploring more about vision loss and blindness in the upcoming GLIMPSE issue 10, Blindness. In the meantime, let us know your thoughts, research, questions, or experiences related to the topic.

If you’re interested in the chemistry of vision and why we perceive the section of the electromagnetic spectrum that we do, you might also be interested in GLIMPSE, issue 4, Color, and the article on “Human Potential for Tetrachromacy” by Kimberley A. Jameson and the online supplementary article.

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Myya McGregory is the GLIMPSE 2012 Science Writing Intern. She is a junior double-majoring in chemistry and economics at Williams College. She enjoys music, dance, and literature.

Che Guevara: Life after Death Part 2

by Myya McGregory

What makes an icon?

In the last post we talked about the documentary film, Chevolution, directed by Trisha Ziff and Luis Lopez and how Alberto  Korda’s photo of Che Guevara, the “Guerrillero Heroico” (the Heroic Guerrilla), transformed Guevara from a simple historical figure to a photographic and visual icon.

Ernesto Che Guevara by A Rostgaard 1969 from IISG’s flicker

Painting and street art are often treated as fiction, and photography as fact. Yet a photograph can be just as constructed as a painting. Korda’s Guerrillero Heroico was not popular by simple coincidence. His photo became famous because of the expression in Guevara’s eyes, his stance, and the strong angle of his head overlooking the crowd. In that one image, Korda captured, with light and angle, what many wanted to see in Guevara. Chevolution doesn’t dwell on this point but the idea is very present. The directors highlight this by contrasting the Guerrillero Heroico with the images of Guevara on his deathbed, which, though more widely disseminated at the time, have not gained the long-lasting fame of the more vivified Korda photograph.

As art has evolved, Guevara’s image evolved with it. The Guerrillero Heroico takes on a slightly different meaning each time it is modified. Each artist adds a new interpretation. Some make Guevara appear more ambiguous, some highlight the eyes, some blur the background, some make him more ethereal softly blurring the outlines, some make him radiant (see left), some even villanize him. Irish artist, Jim Fitzpatrick who created what is likely the most popular rendition of the Guerrillero Heroico tells BBC news he, “deliberately designed it to breed like rabbits.”  His high-contrast image darkens the eyebrows and intensifies Guevara’s gaze. The red background intensifies the black shading and the remaining white makes the entire image pop. It is a more stark and gallant interpretation of Guevara, born of the artist’s admiration.

The Guerrillero Heroico has become a symbol for both those who despise and those who love Guevara.

Street artist, Shepard Fairey (you might remember him from Exit Through the Gift Shop or the Obama “Change” poster) makes a brief cameo in  Chevolution. He talks about Guevara in comparison to his own project, the OBEY Giant. Many have seen the stickers, screen prints, and the walls tagged with Andre the Giant and the simple order to “obey.” This image paired with the single word “obey,” was turned into a social statement about propaganda.

If “obey” was written in a different font would we perceive it the same way? What if Andre the Giant was not the face of the command? What if it was Mr. Rogers?

A simple alteration can affect how we perceive an image. Whenever we view any image, especially an image of another person, we impose a specular dominance over it. We bring our biases, our questions, and our needs. If given the proper image, we can fill in its blanks with our desires. We can construct an icon.

In Chevolution, the directors argue that even though Guevara’s image can be found everywhere, some people still don’t know who he was. Who Che Guevara was has evolved into what he is now.

How is Che Guevara’s image being altered right now? Will it ever fade? What is the next icon that will have a seemingly endless afterlife?

Che Guevara: Life after Death Part 1

Che Guevara mural in Havana from Library of Congress Archives

by Myya McGregory

Chevolution” is a documentary on Che Guevara and the journey of his iconic image. The film makes the case that Che was not only an important figure in the history of Cuba and revolution but also in the history of photography and art.

Che was an Argentine doctor who left his middle class life to join the fight against poverty and corruption being waged by guerilla regiments across South and Central America. Scholars say he was strongly motivated by the rampant poverty he witnessed in his travels. With his interest in Marxism it was no surprise that Che would end up joining Fidel Castro’s “Movimiento 26 de Julio” to take down the long reigning Batista regime in Cuba.

Che was a very well liked figure. He was charismatic, skilled in combat, intelligent, he led by example, and he was the type of activist that Cuba needed at the time.

While aiding in a Bolivian rebellion against Rene Barrientos Ortuño in 1967, Che was killed  by a group of CIA trained guerilla fighters.

Che’s life was profoundly influential in Latin American politics, and his legacy in the arts also continues to intrigue.

A lover of  photography himself, Che insisted on documenting every step of the revolution. When he attended a mass memorial for victims of a terrorist attack at the Plaza de Revolución, Alberto Korda, fashion photographer extraordinaire, snapped the iconic image that would travel around the world inciting revolution in ways that Che could have only imagined.

At the time the Leica M2 was one of the best cameras on the market. Made by a German optics company, the Leica M2 used regular 35 mm film, groundbreaking parallax compensation, and focal-plane shutter.

Leica M2 from Flickr by Shane Lin

Using celluloid film (which had been around for almost a century at that point) and homemade developing solution, Korda and the other photographers traveling with Che would develop, enlarge, and print their own images.

Che came along in a time when photography was becoming more public. Nitrate based celluloid film was no longer commercailly available by the early 1950s because it was highly flammable and toxic. In fact the Northeast Document Conservation Center points out that because cellulose nitrate was so unstable, many of the images taken on this film have deteriorated drastically. It is more likely that Korda took his iconic photo using 35mm acetate based celluloid film. Cellulose acetate was considerably less toxic that cellulose nitrate however its decomposition was equally as autocatalytic and just as caustic (it would produce vinegar as a byproduct in decomposition). Luckily for Korda, copying negatives of photos was a relatively simple process and creating an interpositive could lessen the risk of diluting the image quality along the way. It seems that Che  lived at just the right time in photographic history.

How would history would have changed if Che arrived in different place along the photographic history timeline? What about other leaders and cultural/historical icons?

Visualizing Sound with the Ruben’s Tube

by Myya McGregory

Is it possible to visualize sound? The Rubens’ Tube invented in 1905 by Heinrich Ruben, a German physicist, might be able to help us answer this question.

Students of physics might be very familiar with this contraption, but for those that are not, it might be helpful to think of a gas grill burner. Just like a gas grill burner, a Rubens’ tube is just a tube with holes in it attached to gas tank. The only difference is the other side is attached to the speaker of a frequency generator.

The idea of being able to see sound is predicated on sound traveling in waves. Humans can only hear frequencies from approximately 12 hz to 20 hz. In addition to hearing the sounds, we can also feel the vibrations from these sounds.

Rubens’s Tube by Flickr member, Pete

The height of the flame is determined by Bernoulli’s Principle since pressure is equal throughout the tube. When sound waves travel through the tube combining with the pressure from the gas, flames peak at the antinodes of the sine wave. When the gas pressure is lowered the amplitude of the flames will be higher at the nodes.  Mythbusters explains it well.

Now that we have established that sound waves can be visualized, let’s have some fun with it!

Jared Ficklin takes the concept one step further in his most recent TED talk. He brings out a flame table and digital renderings to examine eigenmodes, the vibrational modes of oscillating systems. This way he can analyze the effects of more than one frequency and show the complexity of sound. He even created a rendering of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”.

How do you visualize sound? Have you ever seen a sound wave? Share your stories below!

Visualizing the Higgs Boson Particle

by Myya McGregory

If you follow science news you probably already know about the discovery of the Higgs boson particle. Having eluded scientists for years the so called “God particle” was detected in the Large Hadron Collider at CERN.

Unfortunately those who need to see it to believe it might be a little disappointed. Most heavy particles live fast and die young. The Higgs boson is no exception. It’s mass is between 115 and 158 GeV and it’s half life is less than a billionth of a second. Much like the famous yet elusive designer, Martin Margiela, the Higgs boson doesn’t want its picture taken.

Known as the God particle because its field is believed to give mass to every other particle before it decays, the Higgs boson is in fact omnipresent. We just can’t see it.

So how do we visualize the Higgs boson particle?

The short answer is: we don’t.

We do however see the effects of its energy and we can watch it decay. The Large Hadron Collider is basically a giant particle accelerator. When the particles hurdle towards each other and collide, they release energy and decay into lesser particles upon impact. As explained in CERN’s animation of their experiment, they hope to excite the Higgs field through the collision of two protons. At that time the Higgs boson will be present, but it will quickly decay into other standard model particles.

If you want a GLIMPSE of the experiment click through these pictures to see particles collide, and read more on CERN’s website here.

 

Persistence of Vision

As  many of you will soon find out in the upcoming Cinema issue, persistence of vision is «the phenomenon of the eye by which an afterimage is thought to persist for approximately one twenty-fifth of a second on the retina». While the image is burned on the retina of the eye, we have time to send signals to the brain to identify the image.

Still from a flipbook created at the Museum of the Moving Image. Credit: Julia Rubinic

Persistence of vision, though thought to be a myth, could explain why our eyes perceive one continuous, moving image when we look at a progressions of stills.

This theory not only explains flipbooks but is also the basis of many film devices of the 19th century. The idea that images remain on the retina seconds after viewing means that images can be perceived as moving at speeds as low as 5 frames per second.

This  also means that if an image vibrates fast enough, it can be perceived as static rather than kinetic.

Check out this website by the American Museum of the Moving Image to discover more.