I booked a flight to Naoshima, Japan, to enjoy Japanese art — and discovered the therapeutic power of James Turrell’s ‘Open Sky.’
Set nearly entirely underground to avoid impacting the gorgeous scenery of the Seto Inland Sea, the Chichu Art Museum in Naoshima, Japan — an island dedicated to modern art — welcomes visitors seeking artworks that span multiple disciplines. The museum is, in itself, an architectural masterpiece by Tadao Ando, which by design uses natural light to effect change in both the art on display and the building’s own architecture as time passes throughout the day and with the seasons. Within its walls, the museum permanently displays works by international artists — Claude Monet, Walter de Maria and James Turrell — providing them the opportunity to become part of the Japanese art world.
An inner courtyard staircase at Chichu Art Museum
The museum leaves a lasting impression on visitors, with its dungeon-like quality that gives way to breathtaking views of the sea and light-filled manicured spaces.
View of the Seto Inland Sea from the Chichu Art Museum
But it is Turrell’s “Open Sky” that may just do more for an onlooker visiting the Chichu Art Museum than simply broaden their appreciation for modern art — it may, in effect, provide healing.
James Turrell, Japanese Art and Creating a Profound Light
When searching for Japanese art, renowned American artist James Turrell is not someone who would immediately come to mind. But Turrell’s body of acclaimed work, focusing on perception, light, color and space, is displayed worldwide. In the mountains of Argentina lies an 18,000-square-foot museum devoted to his work, his pyramids may be found in Australia and on the Yucatán Peninsula, there’s a vault he created in a man-made pond in Norway, and his infamous Roden Crater in the Painted Desert of Arizona is a marvel-in-progress.
Turrell has made a name for himself by deceiving onlookers with projected walls, making them lose all sense of depth perception, taking them into a camera obscura, and swallowing them in darkness or, as he describes the experience, “Seeing yourself see.” Those fortunate enough to view his work find themselves disoriented, in awe of the bold simplicity and ultimately touched by the powerful force that Turrell, as a master manipulator of real and artificial light, creates.
It only makes sense then that three of Turrell’s art pieces would find themselves on modern-art haven Naoshima island, home of the renowned Setouchi Triennale, because the island is full of mysterious offerings that have all become rooted in the Japanese art experience.
Bunraku Puppet by José de Guimarães, Naoshima
There is no exact language to explain Turrell’s work; it transcends the typical artistic vocabulary. This may be attributed to the fact that each and every person who journeys into the mind of Turrell will have a different experience. Wil S. Hylton, writing for the New York Times, said it well when he described trying to put Turrell’s body of work into words: “It is simply too far removed from the language of reality, or for that matter, from reality itself.” With that we come to one of Turrell’s Skyspaces, “Open Sky” — what may be construed as one of the simplest installation pieces he’s ever created, with an effect that makes you never want to leave its embrace.
Finding a Rare Sense of Calm
Designed by Turrell as part of Ando’s architectural vision, “Open Sky” is to the casual observer just a room with a skylight where, depending on the time of day, the color changes with the sky. The walls, the ceiling, the floor and even the benches that line its interior are crafted from grey marble stone, creating a cold atmosphere that could provoke a sense of alienation and loneliness. It doesn’t. The starkness of the room, which is vastly different from the color-filled Japanese art that lines museums, enables the light that shines inside to become art itself. By avoiding color and embracing simple design, Turrell has created a profound experience that is best viewed alone, without disruption in order to fully understand just what healing effects light can provide.
“Open Sky” by James Turrell
If you suffer from anxiety, panic attacks, social phobias, depression or a host of other ailments, you’ve probably been told to try a plethora of different coping mechanisms: prescription medications, yoga, meditation, deep breaths, diet changes, exercise, coloring (yes, it’s a thing) or my favorite: more sleep — because, as we all know, that’s very easy when your daily existence involves high levels of stress. You could try all these things — and they can help — or you could just purchase a flight to Japan and spend some time in “Open Sky.”
The light in James Turrell’s “Open Sky”
I can’t speak for everyone, but I can reflect on my own personal experience inside “Open Sky” and how I found the ever-elusive sense of calm that many of us search for our entire lives. I entered the room, sat down on a stone bench, looked up at the bright white light streaming in from the sky, and my troubled psyche went numb. I was relaxed, my mind clear, my anxiousness subdued, my breathing suddenly steady. I felt no need to talk, to think or even to keep my eyes open to the light. I removed my hat and let it flow across me entirely. I never wanted to leave this cement tomb, did not want to escape its four walls. The mere idea of returning to an existence that did not include “Open Sky” felt wrong, unjust and highly unfortunate. This installation was breathing life into my ever-troubled soul. Turrell’s “Open Sky” had successfully done what nothing else ever had — quelled my restlessness.
Discover Your Own Turrell Moment
You don’t have to be an art connoisseur to appreciate Turrell’s work, and that is something I greatly respect from any artist. There is no right way to assess a Turrell piece because it creates an intimate connection that you can’t prepare for, nor will you find an explanation in a guide. In Turrell’s own words, “My work has no object, no image and no focus. With no object, no image and no focus, what are you looking at? You are looking at you looking. What is important to me is to create an experience of wordless thought.”
It’s not necessary to travel to Japan to have a Turrell moment — although I highly recommend you do. The availability of his work around the world makes it possible for anyone to gain access. No matter what you’re searching for or why, if you want to escape the confines of your mind, discover a new perception of the light (or lack of) that surrounds you, there’s no better choice than a Turrell creation. It will undoubtedly leave a lasting impression.
Hear James Turrell discuss his creative process for “Second Meeting,” one of his first Skyspaces: