See Yourself Seeing

I like to use light as a material, but my medium is actually perception. I want you to sense yourself sensing – to see yourself seeing.

—-James Turrell

A long time ago(2004) , in a previous incarnation of a blog, I wrote about a trip Lee and I took to the newly opened Nasher Sculpture Center. The blog entry was eventually published in a local magazine. A highlight of the visit was my discovery of James Turrell’s work, Tending (blue).

Tending (blue)

Lee standing in Tending (blue) in 2004.

From the blog (I have quoted this twice before):

My favorite piece might have been the installation Tending (Blue) by James Turrell. We walked into a little opening lit by odd, shifting colors into the wall at the north end of the garden. The passage made a right turn and opened into a small room lined with dark stone benches. The walls on the upper half were featureless and smooth. A gray skylight lighted the whole chamber. The effect was strange and very peaceful. I liked it a lot.

Lee and I left the chamber and walked back up the garden and inside the building. We wandered downstairs and into the auditorium where a film was showing. It told the story of Raymond Nasher and his late wife, how they started out building Northpark Mall, acquired a fortune, and then became premiere collectors of modern sculpture. Mr. Nasher talked about his life, his wife, and his passion for the new sculpture center. The film then showed the construction of the center, how a handful of visionary architects and a few thousand men in hard hats converted a grimy downtown parking lot (I’ve parked there many times, put my quarters or dollar bills into a rusty numbered slot) into a thing of great value and beauty. They talked a lot of how it will be there forever. The film was fun and interesting – it really helped me appreciate the place.

On opening day Raymond Nasher said, “I put Patsy (his wife, the collector, who had passed away a couple years before) in charge of the weather today, and, as you can see, it’s beautiful.

One thing was odd, though. On the part of the film that covered opening day, Nasher and Turrell themselves went into the Tending (Blue) chamber that Lee and I had walked out of only minutes before. The benefactor and the artist sat on the benches and looked around. The skylight rectangle in the ceiling wasn’t gray like we saw it, but a deep cerulean blue.

“What’s up with that?” I asked.

“Let’s go back and check it out,” Lee said.

We hiked back down and entered the chamber again. The skylight was still gray. Something didn’t look right, though. I stood under it, looking up, trying to figure out what I was seeing and how it could change colors so dramatically. I was halfway convinced that it was a rectangle of light projected on the ceiling by some hidden apparatus (the upper walls are washed in subtle changing color from hidden computer controlled LED’s) when I was suddenly struck between the eyes with a big, cold drop of water. I wiped my face in surprise and looked down at some small pools of water at my feet.

“That’s weird, Lee,” I said, “I can’t believe it, but this roof is leaking.”

I looked back up, trying to find the telltale discoloration of a water leak, when, with a sudden shock, I realized what the hell I was actually looking at. That wasn’t a skylight, that wasn’t a projected rectangle at all, it was simply a big hole in the ceiling. I was looking directly at the sky. Once my eyes and my brain were in sync I could see the subtle variation of the clouds passing by overhead. The edges of the hole must have been cut back like razors – there was no visible frame around the opening, simply a featureless rectangle of light. It was amazing.

That’s why the rectangle looked blue in the film – it was a cloudless day. Now I want to go back. I want to go at sunset… I want to figure out how to go at dawn. The city sky at night… will it be brown? I want to sit in there during a rainstorm. I especially want to go there on that rarest of Texas days, a snowstorm.

The opening in the ceiling of the installation Tending (blue). A photograph does not do justice.

I returned to the piece many times. It became my favorite place. Then… horrors.

It was destroyed by the construction of an uber-expensive condominium tower. The controversy still rages today.

JAMES TURRELL
American, born 1943
The Light Inside
1999
Neon and ambient light

But I remained a fan of James Turrell. Especially when I found out about Roden Crater.

Imagine a hollowed out dead volcano in the desolation of Arizona filled with Turrell’s work with light. Amazing.

It is one of the things I want to visit before I die. I was losing hope, however. The idiosyncratic artist was taking forever and only a handful of people (each making tens of thousands of dollars worth of donations) were being allowed to visit. That doesn’t… and never will… include me.

But I kept watching… digitally. And today an article came across my screen. Turrell has partnered with Arizona State University to finish the project and open it up to the public. I’m stoked.

As much as I dislike the image of the isolated volcano surrounded by ugly parking lots – gift shop selling doodads and geegaws and rubber tomahawks – crowds of gawking tourists griping about the heat – tour buses idling to keep their air conditioning running disgorging their cargo wearing “I’M WITH STUPID” T-shirts into snaking queues of people staring at their phones…. All of that would be worth it if it allows one person (me) to actually visit Roden Crater.

Faster, please, I’m not going to live forever.

Now that I think about it there are three artistic creations I’ve know about for a long time and hope to live long enough to see finished.

1. When I was a little kid I read about the Crazy Horse Memorial Monument and fantasized about seeing the gigantic sculpture, probably as an old man.

Well, I don’t think I’m going to make that one – it doesn’t look like it has changed much since I was a kid. The other two, though:

2. The Sagrada Familia in Barcelona… they have picked up the pace the last couple of decades… I might make that one.

3. An now there is hope for Roden Crater. This is truly the best of all possible worlds.

Balmorhea

I recently discovered this band, Balmorhea… Their music is fantastic, it reminds me of Lucovico Einaudi – and they are named after one of my favorite places in West Texas.

When we first visited Balmorhea, it was like the start of this video – we were crossing the blasted desert looking at the red tornados of dust devils. Suddenly, there was a dive shop, and then the incredible pool of San Solomon Springs.

I wrote in July of 2000:

We drove the Interstate to Pecos and then turned south towards the distant blue wiggly line of the Davis Mountains. Watching the mountains grow, we drove through the most isolated and blasted looking territory yet. Nick and Lee were delighted by the enormous dust devils that the sun spawned across the desiccated fields. Looking like brick-red tornadoes these wandered across the flatlands. We drove through one and it was powerful enough to worry me about the trailer pulling behind, but it only gave the van a good shove and didn’t cause any real problems.

It was an easy drive and by mid-afternoon we arrived at Balmorhea. The park there is an oasis in the desert edged up against the foothills of the Davis Mountains. The rain that falls in the highlands percolates down and emerges from an artesian spring, cold and clear. Back in the thirties, the government took the wild spring and built a gigantic Y-shaped concrete swimming pool. The parks boasts the swimming pool, a nice little hotel, a recently constructed desert wetlands – the San Solomon springs Cienega (labor supplied by the Texas Department of Corrections) that provides habitat for two endangered species of tiny fish( the Comanche Springs Pupfish and the Pecos Gambusa), and a loop of nice little campsites each with its own quaint little fake-adobe shelter.

A quick sketch I made of the Balmorhea campsite.

Nick at Balmorhea, in July of 2000

Nick jumps off at Balmorhea, eleven years ago.

I had one of the most frightening experiences of my life the next day at that pool in Balmorhea.

From my journal, July 3, 2000:

We came back down to Balmorhea in the late afternoon and decided to go swimming. We talked to Lee about his fear of the fish in the pool and, as I suspected, it was mostly that he was tired and hungry yesterday. Some rest and some food and he was ready to hit the water.

He didn’t really do any swimming. What he preferred to do was to put on his goggles and stretch across his inflatable inner tube and let me swim and pull the tube around the big pool. He’d take a deep breath and stick his head into the water and look at the bottom. The pool is very large and there was a lot to look at. He would have requests like, “Swim me over to that end,” or “let’s go out to the deep part,” and I’d oblige. He’d plunge his face and come up with a report of what he saw: a school of fish, or some rocks, or a turtle, or a place where some kids had inscribed their names into the algae growing on the bottom.

After the crowded holiday that day before, only a handful of swimmers and some scuba divers were there. As I pulled Lee around Nick dove off the high board and swam until it was his turn. Lee wrapped in a towel and walked back to the campsite. Nicholas put on his goggles and I started swimming him around on his tube. We went into the deep end to try and spot the place where the copious flow of water erupted in a bed of white bubbling sand.

We came up against the stairs on the far side. I was getting tired and cold, the spring water is very chilly, it was late, I’d been swimming a long time and it was taking its toll. I asked Nick if we should walk back, around the pool or swim across. We did have his inner tube – I felt confident we could make it across one more time. We decided to swim. It was a mistake.

Nick looped his goggles around one shoulder and took hold of one side of the tube while I grabbed the other and we started to swim. Not too far from the side, but at the deepest part, maybe thirty feet deep, Nick called out, “Oh, oh, there go my goggles.” In retrospect I should have let them sink; but I took a big gulp of air and took off underwater, diving as deep and as quickly as I could. Maybe twenty feet down I saw a sinking orange blur, frog-kicked over to the goggles and grabbed them. Then I swam back up to the surface.

When you start reaching well into your forties, like I am, there is a fundamental change in the relationship between you and your body. What has been a good friend over the years, a partner, something you are… well, attached to – suddenly turns traitor. Abilities you have taken for granted for decades disappear. No one tells you about this. As a youth I could swim underwater with the ease and comfort of walking across a field. I took this for granted, the ability to hold my breath, come up for air and refresh myself. I discovered tired, and cold, and old, and fat… this is no longer true.

When I came up and handed Nicholas his goggles and put one hand on the inner tube and started kicking and swimming I realized that I was not going to be able to catch my breath. It came on with awful speed. No matter how hard I tried, my breathing became more and more labored, shallower, moving my arms and legs in the cold spring water was becoming extremely difficult.

It was horrifying.

With amazing clarity of thought, I knew I was not going to drown. I did have that inner tube for a float, even though I was rapidly becoming so weak I could barely hold on to it. There were some scuba divers in the pool that had finished diving and were sitting on the steps talking over the day’s sights and I knew I could call to them and they would haul me out of the pool. I came within a hair’s breadth of doing that.

The main fear I had was I thought I might be having a heart attack. I had never felt like this before. There was no pain, but I simply could not breathe, I could not get enough oxygen into my body to keep my arms and legs moving.

I don’t know what Nicholas thought, holding on to the other side of the inner tube, my son’s face only a few inches from mine. I must have scared him a little because I know I was flopping more than I should, trying to hook my arm into the tube and was unable to get it done. I didn’t want to frighten him unnecessarily so I kept my rising fears to myself.

Slowly, we continued to move across the wide pool, and finally I was able to reach down with a toe and touch the bottom. That didn’t help as much as you’d think because I was too weak to stand in the water and the energy used to hop and get my face above water made my breathing more impossible. Finally, the floor became shallower and shallower and before I knew it I was on the steps.

I released the tube and the brisk wind blew it away. “Could somebody get that please,” I asked, and a scuba diver caught it with a couple strong sure strokes and brought it back to me.

I didn’t have to sit beside the pool for very long before I felt fine. The fear and panic quickly drained away and left me with a slight elation even though I was still a little tired. I told Nicholas to take his towel and walk back to the popup at the campsite, I’d catch up in a minute.

Looking back on it now, I realize what I was feeling, in addition to simple exhaustion, was hypothermia. The spring water was cold and I had been in it for hours. There had been no pain, but I had felt a thin sliver away from death.

Walking slowly back to the camp, enjoying the last purple glow of the set sun, following the channels that the water followed as it coursed out of the pool, roaring down the irrigation ditches on out of the park, I felt fine. But the memory of those minutes of fear, the feeling of helplessness and drowning, are still with me. I had never felt like that before and I don’t look forward to feeling like that again.