Picturing the Sky

BY TOM JOHNSON

Set within the grounds of Yorkshire Sculpture Park is a Grade II listed 18th century deer shelter. Modest and unassuming in appearance, the building appears untouched from its original use, providing cover for the animals during poor weather conditions. Surrounded by grass and trees the shelter remains a historical feature of the agricultural landscape.

Deer Shelter Skyspace (Exterior)
Deer Shelter Skyspace Exterior, Photo by Tom Johnson

In 2006 the Art Fund commissioned a transformation of the building’s interior, creating a Skyspace by the artist James Turrell. Born in America, Turrell is a major contemporary artist whose work explores the perception of light. The Skyspace pieces usually involve a rectangular or spherical opening in the ceiling allowing light to enter a chamber room beneath: a bit like an aperture filling the inside of a camera with light. Viewers to the works are presented with a direct vision of the sky, with its ever-changing light illuminating the space within.

Entering the ‘Deer Shelter Skyspace’ at Yorkshire Sculpture Park you have a choice of walking through two near-identical tunnel-like corridors which lead in to a square chamber room. In contrast to the closed appearance of the shelter, is the openness of the interior. There is a sense of widening space, with yourself in the centre.

Deer Shelter Skyspace Entrance
Deer Shelter Skyspace Entrance, Photo by Tom Johnson

The chamber is stark and bare. Grey concrete forms the ground, seats, and lower walls: a modern material in contrast to the red brick exterior. The lower walls are set back at a slight recline, allowing people to lean against the surface while standing. You can see a new viewing point that takes you closer to the picture of the sky provided by the rectangular opening in the ceiling.

Deer Shelter Skyspace Window
Deer Shelter Skyspace Window, Photo by Tom Johnson

Similarly, the seats invite you to spend time with the piece, contemplating, watching the ever-changing light. As people move in and out of the space, the experience of observing becomes a shared one. Peoples’ conversations, their voices, echo within the chamber. In terms of the rectangular opening, the act of framing the sky brings what seems distant much closer than normal. On this particular day, the sky’s blueness contrasted with the white upper walls and ceiling, offering a luminous vision which seemed to hover within reach.

Observing becomes a meditative experience: birds may pass by; aeroplanes fly overhead, seen and heard, leaving trails of white. The viewer gains a heightened sense of awareness within the space.

Exiting from the ‘Deer Shelter Skyspace’ I was struck by how much of its effect lies in the contrast between the historic exterior and the contemporary interior. Whereas the exterior is particular and grounded in reality, the interior with its subject of light hints at the universal and metaphysical. Whilst the deer shelter had a use and is of this world; the Skyspace is otherworldly, almost a futuristic sci-fi vision, as if an alien space ship had landed, with a portal looking up in to the sky.

 

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