In anticipation of tomorrow’s great astronomical event, I have been recalling the last (and only) time I witnessed a total solar eclipse.
In Cornwall on 11 August 1999 we saw the last total eclipse that was visible over the UK (though, last time, totality was only fully visible along a limited path that crossed northern France and Cornwall). Typically, being Britain, the skies were cloudy, and we didn’t get to see the disc of the moon passing across the sun. But, at 11 minutes past 11 in the morning, standing on the cliffs above Sennen Cove in Cornwall, it did go spookily dark – not total darkness, but the dark of deep dusk. And we did see the moon’s shadow advancing towards us from the west, and the receding to the east.
The Cornish media had been predicting county-wide gridlock before the event, so we set off for Sennen in good time and secured a reasonable viewing position (retracing our steps proved more problematic – it seem as if every road and lane in West Penwith was jammed with vehicles; the following day, the Western Morning News reported a 35-mile tailback on the A38 out of Cornwall as thousands of motorists headed home).
Later on that holiday we made a point of visiting the Elliptical Ecliptic, the specially-commissioned work by American artist, James Turrell, located on a hillside at Ludgvan, overlooking Mounts Bay and St Michael’s Mount. At the time Turrell was famous for his massive project, then unfinished, to turn Roden Crater, an extinct volcano in the Arizona desert, into a spectacular platform for observing the heavens from specially-constructed viewing chambers built into the crater. The Elliptical Ecliptic was the first example of one of his somewhat smaller Skyspaces to be located in the UK.
On the day of the eclipse entrance to the Skyspace had been restricted to an elite audience of curators and celebrities, but now the work was open to the general public. A short walk brought us to the The Elliptical Ecliptic at the top of the hill. It took the form of an elliptical aluminium shed with an elliptical opening cut in the roof, through which the light poured in.
The material that Turrell works with is light, and each Skyspace is special chamber for viewing the sky. White walls lead the eye up to the opening to the sky. We sat for a while on the back-tilted bench that circumvented the interior, changing position every so often to absorb a different view of the skyscape above. White clouds drifted across blue sky, and something in the way that Turrell designs these things caused the mind to drift and the sky to begin to appear hyper-real, brighter than the sky had seemed before, as if it were a painting.
If everyone were to have this kind of experience,’ Count Panza di Buomo of Varese (who owns a few Turrell installations) has said, ‘the use of drugs would disappear, no one would commit suicide and violence would stop.’ Well, I’m not sure about that – but spending time in a Turrell Skyspace certainly has a calming effect.
Trailer for The Cowboy and the Eclipse, a documentary about Turrell’s the preparations for the Cornwall Skyspace
The Elliptical Ecliptic was only a temporary installation, and it closed that September. But a new Skyspace opened in 2014 in Tremenheere Sculpture Gardens, near Penzance (I’m not sure if this is the same location where we saw the 1999 Skyspace). I’ve not seen that one yet, but in October 2006 we visited another Skyspace – Turrell’s conversion of the 18th century deer shelter at Yorkshire Sculpture Park into a Skyspace that had opened that year.
The Deer Shelter Skyspace consists of a large square chamber with an aperture cut into the roof. Through this aperture – as the YSP guide puts it – ‘the visitor is offered a heightened vision of the sky, seemingly transformed into a trompe l’oeil painting’.
You enter the old deer-holding pen through a rustic gate, pass through an open doorway at the back of the deer shelter, and follow a narrow passage to emerge into a rectangular, light-drenched space, surrounded by bench seating in polished concrete with a tall angled backrest.
Everything is white, and as well as watching the sky through the usual opening to the sky, Turrell has engineered a sort of sundial effect whereby a patch of sunlight projected by the aperture slowly moves across and down the wall as the day progresses.
James Turrell, Deer Shelter
Turrell has described his work as ‘sculpting with light’:
I want to form it, to give it its due so that it wasn’t something used to illuminate or or reveal something else. I wanted to do something with light itself.
For Turrell, light is something tangible, even sacred. He refers to the quality of light in Gothic cathedrals ‘which inspires more of a sense of awe than the words spoken there’. He notes how painters such as Vermeer have taken light as their principal subject. He reckons we are ‘light-dwellers’:
We like to think we are beyond nature, but rather we are beings that create light for ourselves. We are light-eaters. Bodily we are involved in light, and psychologically we are immersed in it, and spiritually we need it too. There is hardly a religious experience that is not described in terms of light.
That’s how the light gets in, I guess.
- Immortal longings: interview with Turrell, July 1999 (Guardian)
- From light into art: interview with Turrell, July 1999 (Telegraph)
- A beard of stars: James Turrell’s latest “Skyspace” makes him a populist artist-hero for the British (Hugh Pearman on the YSP Skyspace)
- James Turrell’s Deer Shelter Skyspace at Yorkshire Sculpture Park