Renowned artist James Turrell comes to campus for lecture, meeting with students

November 20, 2007

Internationally acclaimed artist James Turrell came to Cornell's Ithaca campus as the first guest of the newly established Cooper Visiting Artist Program. During his visit, Turrell met with undergraduate and graduate students and gave a public lecture where he discussed his career working with unusual media: light and space. "This is a very special evening and a true Cornell event demonstrating how this is a place where things happen through collaboration and the support and friendship given to the institution," said Mohsen Mostafavi, Gale and Ira Drukier Dean of Architecture, Art, and Planning. "James Turrell focuses on the ephemeral dimension of the relationship between architecture and art. He is a master in the role of the magical relationship of light and space and its influence on our perceptions." The Cooper Visiting Artist Program is sponsored by John Cooper '97. Cooper is committed to bringing in the very best of contemporary artists each semester and raising the standards of sponsored visitors to campus, said Mostafavi. During his lecture and slideshow in a full Alice Statler Auditorium, Turrell described his artistic trajectory -- from becoming "preoccupied with light" at the age of two to spending the last 30 years transforming an extinct volcano into a work of art. Turrell said that as a young art student he started to work with light as a material and started to realize how subtly and dramatically a physical space could be changed by manipulating the light. "When you stare at light, you're not thinking in words. It's something else. The feeling, the power, comes from an overall sense," he said. "And when you find the right balance between the amount and quality of light and the volume of space, the light takes on a physicality almost like a fog or a 'glassing up.'" Over the years, Turrell has honed this so well, that what is a solid object and what is simply light that looks like a solid object has become less obvious. In fact, a few years ago he was sued by a museum patron who fell into one of his exhibits. "Her testimony was that I had created a blue wall, but when she leaned against the blue wall, it wasn't there. It was made of light," he said. Turrell explained that through his creations he's looking to capture the feeling of the world which is "just beyond" and one that you need to "look into" and not just "at." A physical space can take on many dimensions, he said. Overall, his vision is to add an extension to reality that will help people see that "this is not a rational world, but a rationalizing world." His move to creating "skyspaces" -- freestanding enclosed pieces that focus a visitor's attention on light from the sky and thereby enhancing the human experience within nature -- led to a move out of galleries and into architecture and construction. "I wanted to harness the light directly from the sky, and museums and galleries aren't usually too happy with you when you cut 15-foot holes into their ceilings," he joked. So, he designed complete observatories in various forms -- a Japanese bathhouse, Quaker meeting halls, a stone oval in the English countryside. And, since 1972, the ultimate skyspace: Roden Crater in the Painted Desert in Arizona that has been described as one of the most important cultural undertakings of ours, if not multiple, generations. Slated for completion in 2011, the massive project includes thousands of feet of tunnels that burrow under the cinder cone. Visitors will take the tunnels to the heart of the cone where an observatory modeled from the eyes carved into Greek statues will direct their attention skyward. Also during his visit to campus, Turrell spent two hours with 16 undergraduate, graduate, and alumni art students in a "conversation with James Turrell." "It was a successful -- and memorable -- dialogue," said Patricia Phillips, chair of the Department of Art. "James spoke informally and thoughtfully about being an artist, his practice, the ideas and issues that drive his work, the consequences of decisions made at different points in this career. The students were deeply appreciative of this opportunity and had great respect for his openness, honesty, and striking intelligence." Turrell's visit was also made possible with help from Richard Baker '88 (Hotel).

by Aaron Goldweber

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