James Turrell’s Skyspaces are chambers with a hole in the ceiling, built either as free-standing structures or integrated into existing buildings such as art galleries. Their interiors are carefully designed to softly and evenly diffuse the natural light coming in through the hole, creating a gentle ambiance that subtly shifts with changes in the outside environment. What a wonderfully pure, meditative space, you might think. Except that in my experience, for example of the Skyspace at Yorkshire Sculpture Park that rises like a neolithic burial mound out of the hillside, Turrell’s architectural inventions are a stage for a busy and endlessly-narrated theatre: parents pushing prams in and out, children running round in circles shrieking with pleasure, bemused visitors expressing their bemusement to one another in loud terms, birds hopping about on the roof, sheep in the fields, construction vehicles in the distance… The Skyspaces are inherently porous contrivances, with all that entails. You have about as much control over your experience of one as you have over the weather.
At just shy of two hours long and mostly quiet throughout, there was little chance of being able to sit and listen to the whole of Robert Curgenven’s album “Climata” in the equally busy theatre of my shared house, so it mostly ended up playing in the background as I went about with the rest of my life. All of the sounds on the album can be traced back to recordings made in 15 of Turrell’s Skyspaces, spanning 9 countries. That tracing back is hard to do simply by ear, however, at least for a non-specialist layperson like me. If I’d been told that the various soft tones, flutterings, and oscillations that make up the bulk of the album had been produced using synths, I would have accepted this without question; only the occasional entrance of birds, or churchbells, or a passing siren (those perennial field recording staples) hint obliquely at the origin of those moments in a Skyspace, the red light of the field recorder breaking the even dispersion of calm natural illumination. Curgenven’s brushstrokes disappear into the aural painting.
Likewise, the music itself has a habit of disappearing below the threshold of conscious perception, hanging in the air of the room like an indoor weather system, invisible yet pervasive. You notice it when it stops: a certain affect, like that of a late summer haze or fluctuating breeze, quietly withdraws its presence. What distinguishes climates from weather is that the former change at a slower rate than is detectable through immediate perception (which is why climate change is real even though it might be cold today). Turrell’s Skyspaces play with the thresholds of what is and what isn’t immediately perceptible change, encouraging us to slow the fleeting of our attention while demonstrating how many things in the world — fundamental, important things — don’t necessarily happen ‘for us’, at a rate at which we can sensibly grasp them. “Climata” adjusts itself to the time and the subdued, diffuse intensity of the Skyspaces, modelling the same porosity and liminality in aural form. It’s sense-shifting work.
Image: Talitha Kennedy, ‘Fleshing out my cave’, 2014