My friend and I arrived at James Turrell’s Skyspace, at Philadelphia’s Chestnut Hill Friends Meetinghouse, just before sundown. When I asked another visitor if we could take photos, the man—who had visited a number of times before—told us the artist had asked that no one take pictures, so that we could keep the experience “in here”—he tapped at his heart.
Turrell has built dozens of these perceptual environments around the world, but only two in the context of Quaker worship. This newest Skyspace encompasses the small, white-walled meetinghouse room, with a carefully constructed, rimless opening in the center of its roof, and a bank of hidden, digitally programmed LED lights high on the walls.
If it rains, the Skyspace viewing is cancelled, since the rain would come right in through the opening, which is usually covered. It had rained just a few hours before, but thankfully, the sky cleared up: when the covering retracted, we looked up into a softly blue sky with puffs of gray clouds. I took the invitation to lie on the floor, right under the opening. This made it different from a Quaker Meeting for Worship, though the silence that fell over the visitors through the next fifty minutes felt very close to a Meeting.
The open, rimless rectangle, framing a piece of deep sky, at first touched off a sense that I was looking at a painting—although a painting that moves—against a white background. Paintings traditionally aspired to be windows onto another view, right? It’s as if Turrell knew how hard it is to keep our eyes and brains still enough to pay attention to the sky, and offered us this one bite-sized piece.
Slowly, like a curtain rising, the hidden lighting in the room changed, and with that, we were transported into another place. Turrell the perceptual magician ushered us into worlds where our sky was intensely green, soft orange, deep lilac or faded yellow—a startling result of our eyes adapting to the changing ambient hue in the room. More amazements followed: was that a halo around the sky? Was I maybe standing in front of a window, rather than lying under it—and could I just get up and walk through it now? Finally, we blinked under the coal-black aperture, and walked outside to a sky of midnight blue.
Lying under the window of sky, I found myself wanting to share the experience with others—particularly with my father. He is in his final illness; he sleeps a lot and talks only a little. I wished I could convey to him some of the light we saw, taking it out of my heart and putting it in his. Still, I know the experience is different each time and for each person: everybody has to see his own light.