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Light Research @ MMU

James Turrell’s wonderful Skyspace, Kielder Forest, Northumbria

With Ulisses, Julie and JSkyspace cloudsan from the IAS at Durham, I headed out on a bright but chilly February day to visit James Turrell’s Skyspace at Kielder Forest, situated a mile and a half from the nearest metalled road, amidst a coniferous plantation. It takes the form of a broad, low tower built from local stone, with a passageway leading into a circular chamber. A concrete bench surrounds its inner circumference, painted grey like the lower wall, which is detached like a thick skin and rises at an outward angle to about 8 feet. A higher wall, painted white, extends to the ceiling, at an angle leaning towards the perpendicular. It joins the ceiling which covers an area of some three feet, at which point a perfectly circular aperture with a very sharp edge has been cut, open to the sky. Sitting on a bench, in daylight, all attention focuses upon the intense, radiant circle of sky that contrasts with the lower light levels that it disperses in the interior like a haze. This light is the interface between internal and external space.  Skyspace fading afternoon

The light of the sky continually reveals its temporality, shifting according to the time of day, the season and the prevailing weather. Whether flecked or thick with cloud, full of stars or midday blue, a succession of intense colours dazzles the eye and conditions the glow or gloom of the interior. The bench invites visitors to sit and look at the circular aperture, and while at first they may seek to glean particular features within the sky, or to situate the experience within a conceptual framework, after a while, as we sink into the work, the intensity of the light absorbs our attention.  The sky garners a focused attention in a way uncommon when outside, and acquires solidity because of the brilliance of its colour and luminosity. As dusk descends, the sky seems to become closer as the gloom of the interior blurs details within, and sunset and moonbeams tint particular sides.Skyspace dusk (2)

We are seeing light in a pure form here, not as it refracts off the textures and features of the landscape. Isolated from the everyday surroundings with which we usually perceive it, light is revealed as integral to the experience of the world. But more than this, the depth, angles and height of the inside walls and ceiling seem to change according to the shifting qualities of light. Turrell’s work thus makes us aware of the ways in which we perceive light. We can’t be sure what we are seeing is there, or whether our eyes are being tricked. In addition, attention is drawn to the sky, which is usually sensed as a sort of neutral background above and around us. Here, it is the central focus and with its changing light and colour it seems to take on a solid, material form. This work does not only make us aware of light: far from any roads or houses, the interior also rings with the echoes of sounds made by visitors or amplifies birdsong, wind or the buzz of an aeroplane from outside, but at other times encloses an unfamiliar and complete silence.Skyspace Moon

February 8th, 2014 - 17:12pm

Gavin Turk’s Neon Art at the Bowes Museum

gavin  Turk LobsterOn the night of the 24th January, with other fellows of the Institute for Advanced Study, I visited the Bowes Museum, the fantastic 19th century building rendered in the likeness of a French château, in the North Yorkshire town of Barnard Castle, to enjoy the opening of a fabulous exhibition devised by Gavin Turk. Turk NailGavin Turk Candle

Bringing together all of his neon works made between 1995 and 2014, these pieces resonate with iconic works by old and modern masters, with popular culture and with themes explored in Turk’s earlier work. Installations include an animated lit match, a large egg, a banana, the radiating vision from a single eye, the Greek letter Phi, a star, an iron cross, a lobster, a candle and three doors in the middle of each wall, matching the one viewers enter. These are accompanied by a work on the outside of the building, Seven Billion Two Hundred and One Million Nine Hundred and Sixty-Four Thousand and Two Hundred and Thirty-Eight (also the title of the show), a number intended to capture the median human population of the earth at the time of the exhibition’s opening. This is matched by another work inside that assesses the amount by which this number has increased during the time it takes to make your way into the interior gallery from the outside – specifically, to 7.201,966,413. The various pieces conjure up various associations of this most evocative of lighting technologies: neon’s early allure as futuristic design, its use in propaganda, the seedy but romantic demi-monde conjured in film noir, the gaudy enticements of Las Vegas, the proliferating mid-20th century urban nightscape of advertising promotion, and the work of other artists. (see Christoph Ribbat’s Flickering Light, for a detailed account of these changing  cultural uses and meanings of neon.) Yet these works also stand apart from these resonances, the glow of neon picking out their economical, singular lines, enchanting their symbolic and affective charge.Gavin Turk Door

The show will subsequently visit the New Art Centre at  East Winterslow, Salisbury and most appropriately, the Grundy Art Gallery in Blackpool.

Thanks to Julie Westerman and Ulisses Barres de Almeida for photos.

January 25th, 2014 - 16:57pm

The Power of Candlelight

free to be 2On the evening of 19th January, Durham Cathedral  held an event labelled Free To Be, in which much of the lower areas of the building were illuminated by candlelight. Upon entering the cathedral, visitors could experience an atmosphere and setting staged to solicit prayer and meditation, and become absorbed in the large expanses or in smaller spaces, ‘walking, pausing, watching and listening for God as you like’, as the hand-out advised. Dimmed lights illuminated the upper reaches and roof of the building in a pale grey wash, contrasting with the yellowish, warm glow of the candles that lined the nave and aisles, and clustered in other places. Cathedrals are designed to manipulate light and dark in sophisticated ways. During this event, the capacious interior could be experienced in an entirely different way to how it is apprehended in daylight, by which numerous shafts of sunlight flit across the gloom of the space, cutting shards of light into floors and walls, and stained glass casts glows with saturated colour. Instead, soft candlelight chimed with  the mellow qualities of the stone, revealing the smoothness of carefully chiselled newer sections as well as  ancient surfaces, pocked and hollowed through the ages.

Free to be1

Deep shadows also focused attention on tracery, niches and sculptures, and foregrounded the theatrical layers that extended through the linear expanse of the cathedral, with rood screens, pillars and choir stalls forming darker sections that divided lighter spaces. A harp player added to the contemplative mood, tumbling notes resonating through this glowing realm, and along with incense, she contributed to a rich multi-sensual experience, conjured through the simple deployment of a form of lighting that would have illuminated the cathedral in earlier times.

free to be 3

January 20th, 2014 - 16:10pm

Illuminating Durham Cathedral

In February 2013, a new lighting scheme for Durham Castle and Cathedral, designed by Stainton Lighting Design Services of Thornaby (,  was switched on. This sophisticated deployment of illumination eloquently displays  how light can contribute to developing a sense of place and reveal the often unnoticed qualities of a building. Replacing the previous floodlighting scheme developed in the 1970s, flexible control systems enable light intensity to be moderated and though 240 LED lights have replaced only 53 lumieres,  they  have significantly reduced energy consumption.durham cathedral 1

Since these new lights are positioned closer to the buildings, highlights and shadows are more prominent. The two buildings are distinguished by different colour temperatures, the cathedral being illuminated with colder lighting than the castle. The iconic, massive, medieval cathedral dominates the city’s skyline. The low level lighting across the green situated in front of the cathedral is minimal, allowing the cathedral to stand out against a dark foreground.

Durham cathedral 2The separately spaced lumières reveal the distinctive architectural features of the building: the window tracery, the massive towers and the Norman towers, and the cathedral’s form is accentuated by the warmer light projected onto the buttresses to produces a sense of depth. These striking architectural elements cannot be ascertained as acutely during daylight. But at night, the focus of illumination acts to make them far more evident to the eye. The illumination also vibrantly highlights the texture of the stonework, with areas of rough and smooth surface. Though colour is muted, the shape, details and texture of the building is able to be fully appreciated.

Durham cathedral 3

January 20th, 2014 - 15:59pm

Light theme at the Institute of Advanced Study, Durham

I have recently commenced a 3 month fellowship at Durham University’s Institute of Advanced Study. Each year, the institute selects a particular theme, and this year, the theme is LIGHT. 9 scholars each term, from a wide disciplinary background, are invited to explore, discuss and think about light in the beautiful environment of the 18th century Cosin’s Hall (for a list of this year’s fellows see There are a wide variety of events being held to investigate the numerous ways in which light can be investigated: here’s the full list:

January 20th, 2014 - 15:40pm