The Point Where Imaginative Seeing And Outside Seeing Meet

“In a lucid dream, you have a sharper sense of color and lucidity than with your eyes open. I’m interested in the point where imaginative seeing and outside seeing meet, where it becomes difficult to differentiate between seeing from the inside and seeing from the outside.”
—-James Turrell, The Other Horizon

From the Houston Museum of Fine Arts website:

In the mid-1960s James Turrell pioneered a new concern with the phenomena of space and light, often referred to as the Light & Space Movement. Turrell sought not to depict light but to use light itself as his material, and his earliest works investigated the effects of artificial light. He also developed a number of installations that heightened the relationship between light and the architectural frame.

The MFAH commissioned Turrell’s The Light Inside for the underground tunnel linking the museum’s Caroline Wiess Law Building with the Audrey Jones Beck Building when the latter opened in 2000. The Light Inside turns the walls of the tunnel into vessels for conducting light. An expanded version of his earlier explorations of light in his Shallow Space Construction series, Turrell’s The Light Inside is an all-encompassing environment.

Transcending the traditional confines of built spaces, The Light Inside acts as both a passage and a destination. The raised walkway guides visitors forward and gives them the sense of floating in space, while the changing cycle of illumination (which shifts from blue, to crimson, to magenta) further invites contemplation. The Light Inside makes the experience of moving between the Law and the Beck Buildings not only an exploration of light and space, but also a profound and awe-inspiring experience.

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

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

I have been a big fan of James Turrell for over a decade, ever since a certain day in 2004. That was the day near the opening of the Nasher Sculpture Center – when I took Lee down there to visit the sparkling spanking new museum. I wrote about it in a blog entry that was eventually published in a local magazine.

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.

Now, of course, Tending (Blue) is no more, destroyed in a paroxysm of greed and corruption.

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

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

When I went to Houston over the holidays to visit my family there I wanted to visit the Turrell work at the Museum of Fine Arts, The Light Inside. It’s a tunnel under the street between two buildings, festooned with Turrell’s signature unreal lighting and surreal experience.

A really cool thing, though the experience is a little lessened by the museum guard constantly barking out, “Stay on the walkway! Don’t touch the sides!” It’s beautiful and memorable, though it does lack the pure esthetic simplicity and connection with nature that the late Tending (Blue) offered.

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

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

I can’t write about Turrell without mentioning Roden Crater. Since the 1970’s he has been hollowing out an extinct volcano in a desolate and isolated stretch of Arizona – converting it into a giant gallery for his manipulations of light, space, and expectations. Visiting this place in at the top of my bucket list.

I only hope I’m able to live long enough.

Video of James Turrell and Roden Crater

LED

I was walking home from somewhere the other night – late at night. Pitch dark. There was this big field – never mind exactly where – but the important thing is that it was between where I was and where I needed to be. So I walked across it, diagonally… which is the straight line, the shortest distance between the two points – where I was and where I needed to be.

It’s odd that there is a field like this, this big, this empty, in the middle of a city. Land is expensive, after all… and there is only so much of it. But if you look closely, there are a lot more of these expanses of empty space, of ragged grass, of nothingness, than you think.

But you don’t look closely. Nobody does. There is nothing so hidden, so mysterious, as a big empty field in the middle of a city.

It is so hidden and mysterious that it feels odd to walk across it in the pitch dark. Very odd.

In the middle of the field, when I was a long way from the nearest streetlight, when the only light was provided by the half-moon overhead, I saw something where I didn’t expect something to be. There was a small but bright red light hovering in space, not too far away.

As I approached, it began to change, and then it was blue. Then it was green. Then it was red again. Interested and confused, I walked toward the little light.

It turns out there was a small, ragged tree there, all alone, separated from the rest of the world of trees. You would really never notice that tree otherwise – it wasn’t much of a tree… more like a big shrub – though of a tree shape. And somebody had put something in the tree.

There was enough moonlight for me to make it out. Someone had firmly planted a solar-powered LED lit plastic butterfly in the tree. They had attached its metal pole to a branch and left it to run. It would hide there all day, soaking up the sun, so that its constantly changing light would stream out all night.

Here… I think this is it. Not too expensive, but not free, either. They did a good job of mounting it in the tree, with some padding to protect the branch and large, thick zip ties.

Who did this? And why?

It is impossible to see this from the street. It is only by sheer accident that I walked near enough to the thing in the night to notice the light. Even in the day, you would never see the thing unless you happened to walk right next to it then look up. I have never seen anyone in that field… ever.

So it’s a little secret between me and the person that put it up. I sort of like that. Don’t tell anybody about it… OK?

I walked back during the day to take a picture of the Solar Powered LED Butterfly in the tree.

I walked back during the day to take a picture of the Solar Powered LED Butterfly in the tree.

Red Jellyfish

Part of the preview (A Glimpse) into the Aurora project in the Arts District, Dallas, Texas. We saw these on the way to see The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity at the Wyly Theater.

”The gods of the earth and sea
Sought through nature to find this tree.
But their search was all in vain:
There grows one in the human brain.”

William Blake – The Human Abstract

The Light First

In looking around this interwebs thing – looking at photographs trying to figure out what I’m doing wrong and what I can do better – I came across the bromide, “Find the light first, the background second, and the subject third.”

I thought and thought and it finally began to make sense. Find the light first.

The problem in that here in Texas, the light is either blinding nuclear-hot sunlight, or the pitch darkness of night. Either one – except for a few tiny minutes at sunrise and sunset. This time of year the sunsets aren’t very interesting because of the lack of (or complete coverage of) clouds. Still, maybe there is something.

I’m often driving to work at dawn. Going west, I saw a distant skyscraper illuminated by the orb just peeking over the horizon. It was lit like a fiery finger pointing skyward. Ordinarily, I never even notice this building, but today, it was all in alignment and the orange sunrise was bouncing off the glass just right…. I thought about that and realized that it was the equinox, so the sun would be rising exactly east-west. Though that would mean nothing downtown – I realized that the President George H. W. Bush Turnpike tollroad ran east-west as it crossed highway 75.

I had been walking under there a while back exploring a new trail that has been built under the highway. I was taken aback by how high the tollroad soars as it goes up and over. The High Five near where I work gets all the attention, but the George Bush interchange is as dramatic in a more stark and brutal way.

So that evening, a few minutes before sunset I loaded my camera and tripod up and drove to the Plano Parkway exit – right behind the big Fry’s Electronics store. There’s a parking lot there, under the tollroad, and I lugged my stuff a bit into a weedy field and set up directly under the roadway far overhead and pointed my camera due west, right into the setting sun.

I set up for three exposures per shot on the tripod – then merged them with the HDR software. Since traffic was going by on each image and they would not match, the cars became ghosts in the final tonemapped images. Since a highway interchange isn’t very interesting by itself I played with the parameters until I came up with a hyperactive, over-saturated, surreal result.

Which is what I wanted. Find the light first.

(click to enlarge)

(click to enlarge)

(click to enlarge)

So I have my light. And I even have a background. What I’m lacking is a subject. Pictures without anybody in them can be fun and pretty to look at but they aren’t good enough. They don’t tell a story. I need to figure out how to get people into these HDR composite images – I haven’t seen many people try that. I can’t figure out how to get something interesting – something that tells a story – how to get someone to stay perfectly still while I shoot the multiple exposures.

Something to think about and to work at.

Painting with light

I have been playing around with my camera. I want to try a technique – actually a set of techniques – to paint with light. These are not finished attempts, just preliminary studies to see what the possibilities are.

When I was a little kid I used to read Popular Science and Popular Mechanics like they were the word from God. There was an article where you would set a camera down in the dark, open the shutter, and swing a light over the top of it, making a pattern. It’s a lot easier now, with a digital camera, because you can see what comes out right away – instead of having to develop the film. You can play around.

A couple of test shots with a small flashlight hanging from a ceiling fan.

Working on adding a little color

Next, I want to go outside at night and experiment with “painting” on objects. I actually tried that, but my neighborhood has too much ambient light – plus all the dogs go nuts. I need to think about this a bit more.

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