Hole-in-roof sculpture makes art of Yorkshire sky
By Delphine Strauss
WAKEFIELD (Reuters) – Making a hole in the roof to let in
Yorkshire’s gusts and downpours may seem unlikely to inspire
quiet contemplation among art lovers more accustomed to busy
However, that is what Californian artist James Turrell,
dubbed the “sculptor in light,” has done with his latest
installation, which opened this month among green,
sheep-flecked hills at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park in northern
It is housed in an unassuming building sunk into the
hillside, which used to shelter deer behind its red brick
arches. Now the arches lead to an austere concrete chamber,
designed to hold about 20 people. Tilted faces stare up at a
square of sky framed by the white roof.
Visitors shuffle in awkwardly, then become absorbed.
“It’s like watching the sky on a big television,” said one,
shedding his initial inhibitions. “If you stay here long
enough, you get quite calm.”
They are inside a “skyspace,” as Turrell calls the simple
rooms he builds with an opening to the sky.
Brought up as a Quaker with a tradition of silent worship,
his idea is to remove distractions and let visitors absorb
changing light and colors, with sunsets and sunrises creating
an illusion of the sky coming within touching distance.
He has created about 40 skyspaces in as many years, and
continues work on a vast light observatory in the Arizona
A pilot who flew monks out of Chinese-occupied Tibet after
the 1959 rebellion, Turrell draws his ideas from a pilot’s
perspective where light, clouds and reflections make up the
He sees light as a physical substance, saying: “Light is
not so much something that reveals, as it is itself the
On a recent blowy morning, the Yorkshire skyspace framed a
moving picture of twists of cloud drifting across a blue
background, only to be swiftly replaced by a steely-grey mass
threatening rain. As a concession to the climate, the room is
lined with benches heated from beneath in cold weather.
Turrell says Yorkshire’s “beautiful maritime skies” are
precisely what drew him to the area. He initially had the idea
for the shelter in 1993, but had to wait for an 800,000-pound
($1.5 million) grant from the Art Fund to build it.
“The softness of light you find here is extraordinary,” he
says in comments posted on the walls of the center. “There’s a
moisture in the air, so you have a really soft light, and it’s
often very variegated as well, with lighting events that come
from openings in clouds and so on.”
Fitting sculptures to the Arcadian landscape that surrounds
them is the core of the sculpture park’s work. In the 18th
century, the estate’s owners constructed a parkland dotted with
glasshouses and follies, and now artworks scatter the slopes in
a modern twist on those origins.
Below the deer shelter, lambs huddle inside a Henry Moore
bronze. A polished patch shows where people sit to watch the
hillside framed in the metal curves.
Enjoying the view with them is a bronze female figure,
placed to look out from her bench at the hillside and the broad
valley stretching toward the ex-mining town of Barnsley.
“It couldn’t be anywhere else but Yorkshire,” says Jan
Wells, spokeswoman for the park. “The landscape creates
distinct separate galleries,” she adds, highlighting the
contrasts between the deer park, woodland and formal Italianate
The park has recently expanded, with an underground gallery
hidden behind a yew hedge and turfed roof.
Its three rooms now house a darker, more unsettling series
of Turrell’s light installations — one plunged in such deep
gloom that bewildered visitors have been known to sit on top of
one another as they grope for the benches, Wells says.
Yet the deer shelter, disturbed only by the sound of wind
and contented sheep, could prove a haven for drivers escaping
the nearby motorway.
“Peace in a mad world — fantastic,” one man has written in
the center’s comment book.
Turrell frequently refers to his Quaker upbringing, when
his grandmother told him to “go inside and greet the light.” He
has built one skyspace for a Quaker meeting house in Houston,
Texas, and others provide space for reflective thought.
“Splendid — I like the window too,” writes Gavin, while a
plaintive scribble reminds us that bringing the sky within
reach is not just an illusion. “It was raining! Drip drip …”