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James Turrell Skyspace


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FEATURE: Light Shaper- The Ringling Museum's Turrell Skyspace


The John and Mable Ringling Museum this fall will unveil the most recent, and possibly the most exciting, addition to its permanent collection: a James Turrell Skyspace. The piece will receive international attention, Turrell being one of the most important working artists of the last two or three decades and the Museum’s Skyspace being one of Turrell’s biggest. It is Ringling’s largest piece of contemporary art.

The John and Mable Ringling Museum this fall will unveil the most recent, and possibly the most exciting, addition to its permanent collection: a James Turrell Skyspace. The piece will receive international attention, Turrell being one of the most important working artists of the last two or three decades and the Museum’s Skyspace being one of Turrell’s biggest. It is Ringling’s largest piece of contemporary art.

“It’s like a spaceship landed at the Museum,” says new executive director, Steven High. “It’s a very strong statement about contemporary art and it sets the stage for where we go from here.” The Turrell factored hugely in both Steven’s and Modern and Contemporary Art Curator Matthew McLendon’s decisions to take positions at the Museum, both of them being particularly interested in modern and contemporary work.

“It’s endearing how David is the symbol of Sarasota,” says McLendon. “But I hope that in time, the Turrell will become a symbol of Sarasota like the David. It comes at a nice time, as we’re celebrating the centenary of the Ringlings coming to Sarasota. In my mind, I’m thinking of it as the next 100 years of the Ringling legacy.” McLendon took his position in January of last year and was put in charge of overseeing the Turrell as it was constructed. Willis A. Smith Construction broke ground last June.

Discussion of building a Turrell at the Museum began almost a decade ago, during the leadership of then-Executive Director John Wetenhall. The Museum’s 10-year master plan—which called for the renovation of the Historic Asolo Theater, the construction of the new Circus Museum, etc.—included plans for a Turrell from the very beginning. The $2.9 million-dollar project was funded largely by private donors, with a tremendous amount of support from donor Peter Vogt, who visited Turrell with Wetenhall during the initial stages of conversation.

Turrell was born a Quaker and his work is saturated with that religion’s ethos—Quakers speak of being filled with “the light of God.” In Turrell’s section in PBS’ monumental documentary Art 21, Turrell recalls an early experience going to church with his mother, where she told him they were “going to greet the light.” No one has explored the medium of light as thoroughly as Turrell. “We use light, but we don’t really pay attention to the light itself,” Turrell says in the film. “That’s my interest: How we come to light.”

For the last 30 years he has been converting a volcanic crater in the Arizona desert into a Skyspace. “Roden Crater,” as it is called, has become a work of American conceptual art as mythical and cosmic as any: Turrell explains that Roden Crater will be able to collect ancient starlight, light older than our universe, and “make it present.”

“It’s not an easy concept,” says McLendon, “the concept of an artist working in space and light, the concept of the space being the art object and the concept of the space as an art object. It’s really impossible to explain, it’s so experiential.”

The Museum will have a soft opening for the Skyspace this fall, careful to call it the “future James Turrell Skyspace” until Turrell comes and signs off on it.

“It’s so simple in its complexity,” says Dwight Currie, associate director for museum programming at the Ringling. “It’s not a laser show; it’s not a planetarium.”

“I don’t want there to be ‘hype,’” says McLendon. “It’s not a ‘hyper’ experience; it’s a contemplative one. I’ve been consistently amazed at (Turrell’s) level of engagement with the project.” Each of Turrell’s pieces is unique, but Ringling’s will possess something none other has: living foliage, creeping jasmine and creeping vine. Certain Floridian anomalies have been taken into account, including the experience of the space during thunderstorms.

“Here is a man who is truly at the pinnacle of contemporary arts in the world. His travel schedule is ungodly. And so how much attention is he going to be able to pay to the project? He signs off on every decision. It’s an enormous, complex structure—the architect is in California, the lighting engineer is in Germany, the lighting designer is in New York, (Turrell’s) studio is in Arizona, the liaison is in Houston and we’re in Sarasota. And we’re all talking and working together and it all gets back to Turrell, who is calling the shots. It’s been extraordinary.”

“It’s not a Turrell until Turrell says it’s a Turrell,” says Currie. To complement the completion of the Skyspace, the Museum will present an installation by Swiss “sound sculpture” artist Zimoun that will open during the Ringling International Arts Festival. The two artists’ work—Turrell’s and Zimoun’s—will be packaged together under what the Museum is calling “Sculpting Light, Sculpting Sound.” The grand opening is scheduled for December 22, the winter solstice, as well as the third day of Hanukkah, a holiday celebrating light. “I think it is fundamentally a game changer for Sarasota,” says Currie. “It’s like the day Mr. Ringling purchased the Rubens or the reproduction of David.”

BY ASHTON GOGGANS

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