Illuminating Turrell

Rice hosts symposium dedicated to James Turrell's spectacular "Twilight Epiphany" skyspace

By Michael Hardy May 3, 2013


"Ecologies of Art, Architecture, and Theory"
May 3 at 6 
James Turrell Skyspace
May 4 from 8:30 to 4:30 
Farnsworth Pavillion, Ley Student Center
Rice University
6100 Main St
Houston, TX 77005 

When James Turrell’s “Twilight Epiphany” skyspace on Rice University’s campus finally opened to the public last June, after years of planning and construction, Rice English professor Cary Wolfe was mesmerized. Although he had seen several of Turrell’s installations before at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas and the University of Washington in Seattle, the Rice skyspace seemed significantly different.

“It struck me as quite unusual, and not just because of its use of manufactured reflected light, which relates back to his early work in interesting ways, as many people have remarked,” Wolfe says. “I was immediately intrigued by that, but I was also struck by the way it shares a lot with hieratic and sacred spaces, because of the way the mound is structured. Then also just the scale of it—when you see the light sequence at night, it’s like seeing a spaceship landing.”

Wolfe decided to organize a symposium about the skyspace through the Center for Critical and Cultural Theory (3CT), which Wolfe founded and directs. The long-planned symposium begins this evening with a series of discussions inside the Turrell skyspace, and continues on Saturday with an all-day academic conference. Speakers include Rice professors, graduate students, and figures from the Houston art world like Contemporary Arts Museum director Bill Arning. Wolfe hopes the event will promote more “cross-talk” between Rice and the Houston art world. “I wanted to use Turrell’s work to think about ecology and the environment, in a way that brought in art and philosophy and theory,” Wolfe said. “And it’s just a nice way of underscoring how many good people are in Houston.”

In some ways, Turrell’s work is a natural fit in a city and state that contain so many other significant works of minimalist art, from Dan Flavin’s permanent installations in the Menil Collection’s Richmond Hall to the Donald Judd sculptures in Marfa. In June, a major three-city retrospective of Turrell’s career will open almost simultaneously at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the New York Guggenheim, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Wolfe said that he began planning the symposium before learning of the retrospective, but admitted that his timing was fortuitous.  

“I wanted to engage the broader context of contemporary art in a way that would—I hate to use the phrase—illuminate Turrell’s work,” Wolfe said. “When you have a work of this significance on your campus, you can’t let the opportunity pass you by.” 

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