Art I Love: James Turrell’s Deer Shelter

James Turrell's Deer Shelter Skyspace (detail of photo by Florain Holzherr)

James Turrell has been building rooms which he calls ‘skyspaces’ since 1974. The basic idea is that it is a room with seating and an aperture through which the visitor can gaze at the sky. Sounds simple? It is actually one of the most complex, absorbing and genuinely sublime mind-enhancing experiences you can have, as I found when I experienced my first skyspace in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park a couple of years ago.

The Deer Shelter Skyspace I visited was adapted from an early 19th century deer shelter. These shelters, or folds, were used by stock for shelter in poor weather, and the Bretton Estate shelter is a relatively simple structure, constructed in what was probably a small, disused quarry where stone was cut for use on the estate.

As I wandered across the park in search of the structure, I trailed behind two little old ladies also bound for the space. It was a dull, threatening sort of day, and as I drew closer, I heard them debating whether it was worthwhile going in without blue sky up above. I wanted to intervene and shout yes, yes, of course it is. This is England. Who designs an artwork which relies on blue sky for best effect? In fact, I later found these interesting observations from Turrell:

“The softness of light you find here is extraordinary. Britain has a maritime climate: this is an island in the sea. There’s moisture in the air so you have a really soft light and it’s often very variegated as well, with lighting events that comes from openings in clouds and so on”

The ladies chose not to bother, but they missed a treat. The thick cloud almost descended into the space, pushing out light, reversing the expected sensation of light and infinity. I felt compressed, with a trompe d’oeil fluorescent light pressing in from above. When it lifted, my spirits soared with the lightening of the interior and a glimpse of beyond and infinite space. I always mutter about too few moments for meditation and contemplation in my life. In the Deer Shelter, surrounded by thick concrete with only upwards to gaze there can be no escape from the endless possibilities of the mind or of the universe.


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