by Vanna Villa

American light artist James Turrell’s first “Skyspace” light installation in China brings a spark of life to Beijing temple complex.


Tibetan monks playing “thungchen,” or longhorns, greet visitors to a simple Zen-like structure on the southern edge of the newly restored Temple of Wisdom complex in Beijing.


The music, streamed into the space, animates James Turrell’s first “Skyspace” project in China: Turrell designed this building – a basic white cube tipped with an oculus – and the exhibition that begins here each Sunday at dusk.


Colored waves of LED light initially complement the blue-sky oculus, but then compete with and ultimately overpower the last rays of the sun. The oculus becomes a slate-black mirror until, through another trick of the lights, it dissolves into a looking glass on the stars.


Turrell describes the Skyspace installation, on his website, as “a specifically proportioned chamber with an aperture in the ceiling open to the sky.”

“Skyspaces can be autonomous structures or integrated into existing architecture,” he adds. “The aperture can be round, ovular or square.”


The artist spent two years designing the architecture and the installation of his Beijing Skyspace project on the grounds of this centuries-old Buddhist complex, said Juan van Wassenhove, a Belgian banker and art patron who led the restoration of the temple.


There is a connection between Turrell’s cosmos-linking light installation and the quest for enlightenment that once animated this Buddhist outpost tied to the court of the Kangxi Emperor, a follower of Tibetan Buddhism, van Wassenhove said.


Supported by succeeding generations of emperors who ruled from the nearby Forbidden City palace complex, the Temple of Wisdom fell victim to communist forces who captured Beijing in 1949 and routinely expelled monks and nuns from their cloisters.  When Van Wassenhove discovered the compound seven years ago, it had nearly been destroyed, and he set out to save and rebuild it.


Text by By Kevin Holden Platt

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