Co.Design

James Turrell’s Latest Is Part Light Installation, Part Sound Laboratory

Seated regally on Rice University’s quad, Twilight Epiphany greets every dawn with a free, public lightshow. During the day, it’s a lab for the school’s musicians.

James Turrell has been making skyspaces for almost 50 years. It’s a surprise to learn that there are more than 70 of the mesmerizing, Ganzfield Effect-inducing rooms scattered across the globe—each one I’ve visited has seemed unique, almost magical. But the artist’s latest, an enormous two-tiered skyspace at Rice University, may be his most unusual.

Unlike much of Turrell’s past work, Twilight Epiphany focuses on our perception of sound as much as sight. The artist designed the white concrete-and-steel podium with help from students and professors at the adjacent Shepherd School of Music, who will use the space as an experimental sound laboratory. Twelve speakers are built into the well’s white walls, while two subwoofers are embedded in the grey slate floor. "For us, this is just incredible," gushes the school’s dean, Bob Yekovich, who worked closely with Turrell in the conceptual design phase. "It provides us with a laboratory in many respects that combines music, acoustics and sound installations." Two days a week, the space will host public performances, and every day at sunrise and sunset, a free public lightshow manipulates the arrival and departure of the day through the 14’-square roof aperture.

Hold up—lightshow? Like a rave? Not exactly. Turrell has been fascinated by the way our eyes perceive (or misperceive) color since he was a grad student in Perceptual Psychology in the 60s. The "lightshow" is actually a gently swelling crescendo of colors, created by roof-embedded LEDs, that trick our eyes into perceiving the colors that aren’t actually there. In other words, the colors you see through the aperture are completely different from the colors you’d see if you took a picture with your camera.

Compared to Turrell’s other skyspaces, Twilight Epiphany huge: it can hold up to 120 people within its concrete walls. Seen from across campus, the installation looks like an imposing ritual pyramid, cutting through an artificially-made grass berm. Visitors can enter into the lower tier, which holds around 40, by walking straight into the belly of the volume at grade level. Those who want to access the upper tier must climb the austere double staircase that rises elegantly towards the steel framed roof. The structure was detailed by New York architect Thomas Phifer.

Twilight Epiphany is more celebration than meditation space, an interesting development for Turrell. His work-in-progress, the 400,000-year old Roden Crater that Turrell is turning into a naked-eye observatory, will strike a similarly participatory tone when it opens (fingers crossed) later this year.

Visitors to Twilight Epiphany can look up exact showtimes (it changes every day, of course) and admission policies on the Rice Art website.

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