Lights fantastic as hall set to take centre stage exhibition celebrating light and space
PUBLISHED: 13:33 29 May 2015 | UPDATED: 13:33 29 May 2015
A flight up in the twilight sky as a boy is one of the first times American artist James Turrell remembers being fascinated by the magic of light - and from that sense of enchantment an impressive decades-long career in art has sprung.
“I remember flying with my father sometime before I was ten, we were flying back at the end of the day so it was turning dark as we were approaching Los Angeles,” said Mr Turrell.
“You’ve probably seen this when you’ve flown at night, it looked like almost bioluminescent lichen.
“You could see the hills that went out towards Santa Monica and the sea, and everything was beginning to sparkle. The houses had a certain kind of lighting, the streets a different colour of lighting. It was quite magical to sit and look at.
“We were both staring at it, and my father said, ‘a peasant by day, a princess by night.’
Continuing a great history of collecting art
Houghton Hall has long had a history of championing the visual arts, and the seventh Marquess of Cholmondeley is passionate about ensuring that continues in the future.
Lord Cholmondeley was behind the 2013 exhibition Houghton Revisited which brought the art collection of Britain’s first Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole, back to its original home. It was an idea that proved a runaway success, gaining attention from across the globe and attracting more than 115,000 visitors all eager to see the collection of work by masters including Rubens, Rembrandt and Van Dyck.
Now Lord Cholmondeley – himself an enthusiastic art collector – hopes LightScape: James Turrell at Houghton will follow on from the success of Houghton Revisited.
Much of Mr Turrell’s work on display will be from Lord Cholmondeley’s own private collection, and in collecting art the Marquess is following in the footsteps of his grandmother who commissioned many portraits by artist John Singer Sargent.
Lord Cholmondeley said he was keen to collect “great art of our time” to add another dimension to the works already housed at Houghton Hall.
“I love the idea of new art in an old setting,” he said.
Mr Turrell’s Skyspace ‘Seldom Seen’ was the first contemporary sculpture Lord Cholmondeley had installed in the grounds of the estate which now features an array of works by various artists.
“In the late 1990s he [Mr Turrell] had a wonderful show in Vienna which was very inspiring and I thought it would be fantastic to bring a piece to Houghton,” said the Marquess.
It was to be the start of a long-running artist-collector relationship between Lord Cholmondeley and Mr Turrell, who has paid tribute to what he described as “quite an amazing history of collecting” at Houghton Hall.
One of Mr Turrell’s works collected by Lord Cholmondeley - St Elmo’s Breath - in fact highlights this great history as it is housed in an 18th century water tower from the time of Sir Robert Walpole, the estate’s first art collector.
When asked what especially inspires him about Mr Turrell’s work, Lord Cholmondeley said: “I think we are all affected by light, and it’s almost an immediate effect, I find, and quite meditative.
“The spaces, they are spaces you can sit in. It takes time for them to have their full effect.
“You do not particularly have to be knowledgeable about contemporary art. People who say they do not like modern art go into a Turrell exhibition and find it very strong and impressive.”
He said it was wonderful to be working with Mr Turrell on this latest exhibition and to see the artist create an “extraordinary” illumination for the hall’s west façade with his paintbox of light.
“It makes it so exciting as a collector to have a long relationship with an artist and be able to have projects together. It’s a great privilege.”
Lord Cholmondeley said he was delighted with how Houghton Revisited had captured the imagination of people from all over the world, and that he felt now was the perfect time for this latest exhibition that he had long wanted to present.
“I think people will come from all over to see this, I really do,” he said.
“It’s going to be a major event this summer.”
“And that idea of how light can change your perception of a place is very interesting.”
This simple concept of how we experience light and its effect on the space around us has been a defining part of Mr Turrell’s contemporary art ever since the 1960s.
It is an idea that has equally captivated the seventh Marquess of Cholmondeley, who has been passionate about collecting Mr Turrell’s work since he saw a show by the artist at MAK (Museum of Applied Arts) in Vienna a number of years ago.
And now Lord Cholmondeley’s 18th-century home Houghton Hall will take a starring role in a brand new illumination created by Mr Turrell for the exhibition LightScape: James Turrell at Houghton.
Works from throughout Mr Turrell’s career will feature in the show, and the crowning glory will be a special illumination of the entire west façade of the hall which will be switched on as day turns to dusk on Fridays and Saturdays.
To create the work, Mr Turrell’s team has carefully installed lights on and around the historic architecture, and these are controlled via a computer which Mr Turrell has used to compose his lighting design.
He is keen for his art to be enjoyed by all, and far from speaking in high-flown artistic language to describe his latest work, he simply says it is like a woman putting on make-up and heels ready for a night out.
“I’ve always said that buildings are amazingly stolid during the day, it’s like we are, but after work we dress up, we go out on the town, ladies put on make-up and high heels.
“For me the raiment of light on a building at night is sort of bringing out its other personality. It changes it dramatically,” he said.
“I stay with the architecture of the building, I highlight its features. This takes delicate lighting of the statuary on top, of the balustrades, of the columns. You can make it all come together with just regular white lighting and you can then highlight the different features.
“It’s very much like a woman putting on make-up or dressing up, it’s something that reveals another aspect of the character of the building.”
Like most of Mr Turrell’s works, the illumination is something to enjoy watching slowly unfold over a period of time.
“We put together the scenes and then we put together the drama,” he explained, adding that the entire lighting sequence will be about an hour long, although people can choose how long they wish to watch the illumination for.
The exhibition will also feature two inspiring works already installed in the grounds of the estate.
Seldom Seen, from Mr Turrell’s Skyspace series, takes visitors on a winding wooden path into a mysterious treehouse with a window up into the sky. By day, depending on the weather, people can marvel at the blue sky or the ever-changing formations of clouds, and at dusk the treehouse is lit from the inside to give a unique view into the night sky.
Meanwhile St Elmo’s Breath, from Mr Turrell’s Space Division series, has been installed in an 18th-century water tower, and while Mr Turrell is famed for working with light, in this installation visitors are at first in darkness.
He explained: “You need time to see it. When you first come in from outdoors you will have no vision at all because your pupil is absolutely closed. It’s not until the pupil opens that you will see.”
He said lots of his works promote what he calls “open pupil seeing” because this encourages people to “feel” as well as see the richness and fullness of light and colour.
“It’s only when light is reduced and the pupil opens wider that feeling comes out of the eye like touch, and that’s when we really feel light,” he said.
Mr Turrell’s work explores light in all aspects, and about ten rooms in Houghton Hall have been transformed to showcase his artistic creations.
Visitors will have the chance to see examples of his light projections from the 1960s, holograms, a work from his Tall Glass series, and models and photographs of his Roden Crater project in Arizona. The project, which Mr Turrell has been working on since the 1970s, is a hugely ambitious venture which has involved building chambers into the side and summit of an extinct volcano to transform it into a large-scale artwork through which visitors can view the sky and celestial phenomena.
Mr Turrell, who has received numerous awards for his work, has exhibited in places all over the world, including in recent times at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the Guggenheim New York.
He said he sees himself as following in the footsteps of a long line of artists who have explored light in their work.
He said: “You look at Turner, amazing artist of light,...in a way before Impressionism, before Abstract Expressionism, so he was really quite an amazing visionary artist, and then we have more intellectual light like Vermeer, very emotional light like Goya, Velazquez, then you have all of the Impressionists and how they looked at light.
“We have Mark Rothko in America. Art is littered with artists that work with light, and I’m another one of those. The only difference is I just didn’t want to depict light, I wanted to use light itself.”