Just outside Skibbereen – a stone’s throw from Nead an Iolair – is a work by Californian artist James Turrell: the Irish Sky Garden. It’s a piece of landscaping which explores light by both night and day: an observatory. The structure is an artificial crater with a stone plinth at its centre from which two participants can view the sky framed by the perimeter of the oval enclosure.
In Turrell’s own words describing the experience “…The most important thing is that inside turns into outside and the other way around, in the sense that relationships between the Irish landscape and sky change…”
James Turrell was born in 1943 – in Pasadena. His father was an aeronautical engineer and James obtained his pilot’s license when he was just 16. He has been exploring landscapes by flying over them ever since. He studied perceptual psychology, mathematics, geology and astronomy. He enrolled in the graduate Studio Art program at the University of California, Irvine, in 1966, when he began to explore light projections. At the same time Turrell, a Quaker and conscientious objector, was jailed for a year for encouraging young men to avoid the Vietnam War draft.
All the artist’s work is focussed on light and space. In an interview of 2002 for the International Sculptor Center he explained:
“…I was raised a Quaker, and now I have come back to being active. I’m not sure whether that has impacted my art-making, because my work is not about specific issues—perhaps being a Quaker influences how I live my life and what I value. People tend to relate any work in light to the spiritual. I don’t think this is actually correct, yet, in terms of our lives, we greet light in three major ways that aren’t necessarily partitioned. There is a psychological aspect, a physical aspect, and a spiritual aspect. In terms of the physical, we drink light as Vitamin D, so it’s literally a food that has a major effect on our well-being. The strong psychological effects of light can readily be felt in particular spaces…”
Some examples of Turrell’s work in light and space:
Finola’s post on Liss Ard Gardens gives a good background to the setting of this artwork: a Georgian house (now also an excellent hotel and restaurant – check for opening hours) surrounded by formal and informal landscaping and lakes interlaced by tracks and footpaths which offer ever changing vistas. When she wrote the post a year ago she probably had no idea that it would be the setting for our marriage – which took place this week!
The name Liss Ard comes from Lios Ard, ‘lios’ being an Iron Age ring fort and ‘ard’ meaning high – hence high fort. The ring fort is still extant as a magical space – a grass circle surrounded by trees; there is also, under it, a souterain – a system of low tunnels and chambers which are often found in association with structures of this type. When we discovered that Liss Ard was licenced to hold weddings – and that licence covered all of the grounds – we jumped at the opportunity to ‘tie the knot’ within an Irish archaeological site…
Our ceremony was simple – a humanist celebrant and just a few guests who have been important to our lives in Ireland. After the official bits we wandered down to the Sky Garden and admired Turrell’s vision from the altar-like plinth. We were blessed with blue sky and sunshine.
In 1979 James Turrell acquired a vast natural cinder crater located outside Flagstaff, Arizona. This – the Roden Crater – is possibly his best known work, and it is still in progress. He is turning this volcanic crater into a massive naked-eye observatory, designed specifically for the viewing of celestial phenomena. There are other ‘sky’ works in a number of countries: a ‘Turrell Tour‘ has been mapped out which takes in an least 23 of them.
It’s a big leap – from Liss Ard to Arizona and beyond. The full concept of the Sky Garden has never been completed: two more installations were planned. But how exciting that here in West Cork we have a stunning example of the work of this world-renowned artist.