The Light Inside, 1999
James Turrell, American, born 1943
Neon and ambient light
Overall: 132 × 246 × 1416 in. (335.3 × 624.8 × 3596.6 cm)
Museum commission, funded by Isabel B. and Wallace S. Wilson
Habits of Mind
- OBSERVE DETAILS Observe details / time to think and reflect
The Light Inside
Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.
Connecting to the Work of Art
James Turrell was born into a Quaker family in Los Angeles. His father, an engineer and pilot who was also a birdcall expert, made a special room with windows in the roof of their house from which to call and listen to birds. The young Turrell made holes in the blackout curtains and pretended that the patterns of light coming through were constellations. Although Turrell was nine when his father died, his interest in astronomy and aeronautics reflect his father’s influence. His mother, an especially devout Quaker and medical doctor who worked in the Peace Corps, was also a dynamic figure in Turrell’s life. Turrell’s material choice and use of minimal forms reflect the influence of his Quaker upbringing, which emphasized simplicity and the “inner light” inside each person. In 1965, Turrell graduated with a degree in perceptual psychology before attending graduate school to study art. In 1966, he first began experimenting with artificial and natural light in a Santa Monica studio where he created and exhibited his installations until the mid-1970s. Throughout his artistic career Turrell has focused on light and perception. His most ambitious project is the transformation of an extinct volcano, Roden Crater, into a structure for viewing the sky and the shifting of light. Still under construction, Turrell has been creating this work of art since the 1970s.
The perception of light is central to The Light Inside. An installation piece that the visitor experiences by walking through it, The Light Inside is set inside an underground tunnel that connects two buildings of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston: the Caroline Wiess Law Building and the Audrey Jones Beck Building. Concealed sources of neon light periodically change between magenta, cobalt blue, and crimson. Large opaque glass walls at either end of the tunnel entrances both complement, contain, and filter the projected light within the space. Painted with highly reflective white paint, the ceiling, walls, and lowered area on either side of the raised black walkway captures and transmits the light, creating the illusion of boundless illuminated space.
The Light Inside is an expanded version of an earlier series Turrell calls Shallow Space Constructions, in which the walls of a semiclosed tunnel become vessels for conducting light. Turrell’s art is unique because the essence of his work is seemingly intangible; it is neither paint nor sculpture, yet it is experienced physically as a concrete form. Visitors in Turrell’s tunnel can often be seen reaching out to touch the light. The size of the tunnel is difficult to determine because of the distortion of space caused by the light. This distortion allows visitors to have their own unique perceptual experiences. Turrell explains, “When you are presented or confronted with a work of mine, it is something for your seeing and about your seeing, not about mine.”
Turrell’s work defies the common boundaries applied to works of art such as painting and sculpture, but is connected to the work of other artists. Turrell shares an interest in capturing light. As a graduate student, Turrell was also influenced by the works of Georges Seurat (French, 1859–1891) and Mark Rothko (American, 1903–1970). Seurat, a Pointillist painter, created paintings using small dots of color that, from a distance, appear to blend together and make a cohesive picture. Like Seurat, Turrell’s work places emphasis on the viewer’s perception and optical effects. Mark Rothko’s Abstract Expressionist paintings are large color fields that suggest luminosity. Turrell’s use of light in rectangular spaces and shapes, the monumental size of his pieces, as well as their lack of representational subject matter, are reminiscent of Rothko’s classic style.
Disclaimer: Because The Light Inside is such a site-specific, experiential work, these questions have been designed for use on-site, in the tunnel at the museum.
- When standing in the tunnel, stop and take inventory of your body. How do you feel? What do your eyes see? How do you feel different from before you entered the tunnel?
- Now, take inventory of the tunnel itself. What are the different pieces and elements that make it up? Where are the walls, the floors, the lights?
- What about this tunnel is not as it seems? Are there any optical illusions at play?
- Wait for the light to change. What changes when the colors shift? How do you feel? How do objects and people look in the new light?
- Look at the walls at both openings of the tunnel. What might they be made of? Can you see through them? How are they different from the rest of the installation?
- Strike a pose each time the color changes that reflects how the color makes you feel. Why did you choose that pose? What effect does the color have on your emotions?
- Most works of art in the museum are behind glass or hung safely on the wall for their protection, but Turrell invites you to walk all over his work of art. Why do you think he wants you to be in it? How would the tunnel be different if we were only allowed to look at it, instead of walking in it?
- Turrell often makes similar pieces in which visitors sit and watch the lights change for long stretches of time (in Houston, two of these works can be found at Rice University nearby, and at the Live Oak Friends Meeting House in the Heights). At the museum, however, his work is a walkway between two buildings. How are the two different? What do you think appealed to him about the concept of building a tunnel?
- How would the museum be different if this walkway were an undecorated tunnel instead of a work of art?
- This work is entitled The Light Inside. Why do you think Turrell chose that title?
- Turrell has said that his work is intended to make visitors see their world differently. What is he making you see differently with this work?
- What parts of the world do you want to see differently, or do you want others to see differently? Imagine you are an artist or architect like James Turrell. What might you make or build to help people see differently?
• Visit The Light Within with your students, without discussing beforehand what they are going to see. Instruct them to write a short composition about their experience. Read the compositions to the class, and discuss the similarities and differences in each person’s perception.
• Just as Turrell questions our assumptions about light, physicist Alan Lightman questions our assumptions about time. Read to your students a few pages from Lightman’s book, Einstein’s Dreams. Use this to start a discussion about theories governing time, history, science, and art.
• Discuss the scientific properties of light. How fast does light travel? What happens when light hits water? What happens when light hits rock? If you shined a flashlight into complete darkness, how far would the light go?
Resources Available to Order
The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.
The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.