ABOUT 45 MINUTES before sunset, I'm sitting in an elliptical chamber with clean lines, an elliptical opening in the ceiling, and a slatted mahogany bench running along the wall. It looks a bit like the chapel of some progressive, '70s-era Presbyterian church. For the next 90 minutes or so, I will experience a dazzling display of optical effects in this room and (there's no way to say this without sounding dippy) a communion with the sky.
The chamber is the interior of James Turrell's newly opened Skyspace, a pavilion that stands on two concrete pillars in the Henry Art Gallery's erstwhile sculpture courtyard. There are a couple dozen such Skyspaces in the world (the mother of them all is part of Turrell's Roden Crater Project in Arizona), but this is the only one that has an exterior component: Thousands of LED fixtures under the structure's frosted glass skin will put on a show of slowly shifting colors, making the pavilion a spectacular piece of public art every night from dusk to 2 a.m. The lights are neat-o, beautiful even, and sure to make the Skyspace a Seattle landmark, but they're a mere sideshow to the adventure in perception that awaits inside.
On the evening of the preview last week, I'm stopped short of the hallowed interior: "For donors only," says a nice young man manning the front door. It's understandable that the Henry would want to be extra nice to donorsthe Skyspace cost about 1.3 million of their dollars. It sounds like a lot of money for such a small structurethe thing is only 19 feet tall and accommodates a maximum of 18 peoplebut the amount doesn't seem unreasonable when you see what a perfect gem of construction it is (go run your hands along the perfectly poured, marble-smooth concrete pillars). Project architect Bruce Donnally speaks with feeling about "the tremendous amount of personal love" put into the Skyspace by the contractors Krekow Jennings.
I do finally make it inside (the words "freelance writer for the Weekly" open doors like that in this town), where the Henry's jovial director, Richard Andrews, is our host. While he explains how the lights mounted behind the mahogany bench alter our perception of the sky, I start to experience one of the advertised effects of the Skyspace. The ellipse of sky seen through the chamber's ceiling suddenly appears to be very, very close, a thin membrane bulging into the room. Wispy bits of cirrus clouds passing by appear to be features on the slowly rotating surface of a luminous, egg-shaped blue planet suspended just overhead.
ONE PARTICULAR cloud wisp looks remarkably like a crater, and I gaze transfixed as it passes rotatesslowly out of sight. A small airplane, sunlight glinting on its wings, breaks into view and dispels the illusion of convexity but leaves a white plume behind, whose slow, slow dissolution provides for more minutes of blissful staring. When a small black bird flits swiftly in and out of view, it draws a little gasp from the woman next to me. Thus are we drawn, magically, hypnotically, into the otherwise routine events of the sky.
As the sky becomes darker, it takes on a thick, silky texture, and I begin to see what Andrews called the "infinite midnight blue" effect (it's also at about this time that I begin to feel a serious crimp in my neck from looking up for so longthe bench is gorgeous but not ergonomic). At 10 o'clock, the Skyspace's hydraulic arm hauls a saucer-shaped covering over its oval opening. With the top covered, the oval in the ceiling becomes one of Turrell's patented "ganzfelds," a field of featureless colored light. Staring at it is like looking into a blue infinity. ("Spread," part of Turrell's exhibit "Knowing Light," on view at the Henry through February of next year, also includes a ganzfeld). The Skyspace will be in the closed position only in seriously inclement weatherpiddly, drizzly rain like we get all winter is no problem (there are drains tucked discreetly under the bench), and should, in fact, provide its own visual delights.
Emerging from the Skyspace, I find the night wind and the light in the clouds come to me through freshly awakened senses. A dreamy, happy feeling follows me home like the moon outside my car window.