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The Changing Austin Skyspace

James Turrell's public art installation The Color Inside transforms the Austin sky

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James Turrell's new Skyspace installation, The Color Inside, on Monday evening, October 21. Photo by Spencer Selvidge
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James Turrell's Skyspace The Color Inside is a permanent installation at UT's Student Activity Center. Photo by Spencer Selvidge
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James Turrell's Skyspace The Color Inside Photo by Spencer Selvidge
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James Turrell's Skyspace The Color Inside Photo by Spencer Selvidge
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James Turrell's Skyspace The Color Inside Photo by Spencer Selvidge
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James Turrell's Skyspace The Color Inside Photo by Spencer Selvidge
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Viewers at James Turrell's Skyspace The Color Inside Photo by Spencer Selvidge
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James Turrell's Skyspace The Color Inside Photo by Spencer Selvidge
James Turrell Skyspace 2011
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James Turrell Skyspace 1759
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James Turrell Skyspace 1804
James Turrell Skyspace 1902
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James Turrell Skyspace 1949

On Monday night, over glasses of prosecco and under questionable climate conditions, media gathered at sunset on the rooftop of the University of Texas’s Student Activity Center to experience James Turrell’s The Color Inside, a new, permanent skyspace commissioned by Landmarks, UT’s public arts program.  Having already had to reschedule the preview once due to last week's deluge, Andrée Bober, the founding director of Landmarks, joked that “weather’s just not in my portfolio.” Then she kicked off her flats and encouraged us to stay for the experience the storm might bring to the art piece.

“The work of art is this moment we’re experiencing, right here,” explained Bober, as she glided barefoot around the intimate, curvilinear space.  The shape is reminiscent of a graviton, that magnetic, portable amusement ride where you get stuck to the wall through centrifugal force. The idea that each viewing of The Color Inside is a unique experience is a common sentiment behind all of Turrell’s skyspaces, of which more than 80 are installed all over the world.   

James Turrell, the artist, grew up Quaker, and his work tends to have a spare, enigmatic quality, reflective of the idea that simplicity allows for spirituality.  

Each of his skyspaces features a circular opening to the sky, and all play with perspective. Turrell grew up Quaker, and his work tends to have a spare, enigmatic quality, reflective of the idea that simplicity allows for spirituality. With The Color Inside, an oval cut-out allows visitors who are seated on a bench below to see the sky, which seems practically painted on the ceiling.  During sunrise and sunset, as the sky naturally changes, Turrell enhances that experience with hidden LED lights that project onto the white plaster walls and surround the opening to the sky, creating unimaginable color changes. 

Over the course of the hourlong light show, washes of color projected onto the walls alter how we see the sky, creating pairings like mismatched paint swatches: light aqua walls support a periwinkle gray sky, and minutes later, a jaundiced yellow, Easter-egg oval appears to be nested in Tiffany blue walls. “I was thinking about what you see inside the sky,” Turrell explains of the piece, “and what the sky holds within it that we don’t see the possibility of in our regular life.”

If all of this sounds hallucinatory and a little jumbled, that’s because everyone agrees it’s nearly impossible to describe the experience of being inside one of Turrell’s skyspaces. As The New York Times Magazine wrote recently of Turrell’s work, “it’s simply too far removed from the language of reality, or for that matter, from reality itself.” 

Bober agrees: the only way to get to know Turrell’s work is to experience it. Now the UT and broader Austin community have a permanent, free way to do just that. The project epitomizes the goals of Landmarks, which has now installed more than 30 works of art across UT’s campus that are meant to serve both as resources and ways of beautifying. 

We watched raindrops fall in a slow-motion slant as the sky changed from slate gray to inky blue to a royal, airy purple. 

A roughly $1.5 million project, The Color Inside is funded through a system that allocates one to two percent of the cost of new construction on campus buildings for artwork. In 2008, as Bober was launching Landmarks, the student body was developing a building plan for the new Student Activity Center.  On the students' wish list was a "reflection room."  Using one percent of the budget from the SAC and adjacent Liberal Arts building, Bober commissioned Turrell to create a place that fulfills that wish.  

On Monday, the skyspace was stormy, and we watched raindrops fall in a slow-motion slant as the sky changed from slate gray to inky blue to a royal, airy purple. Before the rain started, a cool, ominous breeze came down, and the sky became a darkly neon, toxic-looking green. “Woah, it’s about to blow,” someone said.

That’s the thing about Turrell’s work — it’s living and malleable. It’s about the perception you have of the sky, at that moment. Or, as Bober put it, grinning as she sat down afterward to chat,  “No one will see it like we did tonight.”  

The Color Inside opened Saturday, October 19, and is located on the rooftop garden of UT's Student Activity Center at 2201 Speedway. The light sequences occur twice a day — at sunrise and sunset — and last approximately one hour, but the skyscape is available for observation throughout the day. Viewings are free and open to the public, although reservations are encouraged for the light sequences during the launch and can be made here.  Parking is available in the Brazos Garage, located at 210 E. MLK Blvd. Learn more here.  

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