When Light is Lost, Life is Lost

“It is virtually impossible to look at the workings of the sky without somehow being moved by it. There is no greater teacher of time and space than the sky, no greater courier to the sense of majesty, no greater dwarfer of one’s own significance, and no greater prompter to the question ‘why’. To watch and interpret the skies has always been one of man’s most basic instincts, providing a way of placing oneself in the context of the universe.” In this article, Richard Bright explores the ‘significance of the sky’ through astronomy, myths and metaphors of the eclipse, together with the work of James Turrell.

Solar eclipse 1999

Stars, darkness, a lamp

A phantom, dew, a bubble

A dream, a flash of lightning

And a cloud –

Thus should we look

Upon the world

(Vajracchedika Sutra 32)

I am sitting here alone, on a long wooden bench that runs around the edge of the room. I am looking at the ceiling, but the ceiling is not there. There is a hole in it, a rectangular aperture that is completely open to the sky. I know it is an aperture because I know its history. I am in a constructed space: an art installation titled Air Mass, by the artist James Turrell. I know of its relationship to the artist’s own history and its place within the history of art. I know these things because I have learnt them. But in this enclosed space, what I know is separated from what I see and what I feel.

The sky is not ‘out there’, but actually in the ceiling. I can ‘see’it, and if I could, I could reach up and ‘touch’ it. It hovers above me, but somehow it looks two-dimensional, a picture plane suspended. I am reminded of when the curvature of the earth is flattened to the plane of a map. But this is neither a distortion, nor is it a mere ‘impression’; it has a physical presence. It has solidity. I am aware of an imperceptible change in its colour. Time seems to be running slow. Is that a bird going across my vision, or a plane flying high? I am only aware of the thought passing. Words after the event. Thoughts where words don’t seem to be attached. They say that hallucination and imagination are closely linked, that maybe reality can be regarded as just creating the ‘best fit’. Hallucinations, imagination, and ‘real seeing’ are essentially the same thing as far as the brain is concerned. So did I just construct that experience? Are my eyes that innocent? What am I actually looking at – the sky, or my own seeing?

I am reminded of something Gaston Bachelard once wrote – ‘Outside and inside form a dialectic of division’ – but this doesn’t seem to be the case here. There is no division, no ‘either/or’; there is only ‘both’. It is as if I am suddenly being shown how to look at the sky. I have lived under it all my life, and yet I have been either too busy or too distracted to notice it. Of course, I have felt the excitement and wonder at its continual changes, of the glorious sunrises and sunsets, but for most of the time, the horizons have always been local, a boundary to my understanding. Occasionally there have been times, as when you fly over a landscape of clouds at sunset, or watch a comet make its way slowly across the sky on a clear night, or, if you’re lucky, see an eclipse, that you feel you are in touch. Throughout my life, changes in the sky always seem to be happening ‘out there’, somewhere else, but that is not how I am feeling at this moment. I feel companioned with the sky.

Its colour is so intense; I have never seen it so blue. I can touch it, not with my hands, but with my eyes. This is a drama of intimacy. I can feel it changing, getting darker. Is this colour just a memory, or perhaps a dream? It is now black, a black so deep it makes you shiver. Looking out through the aperture I cannot see any stars, although I know they must be there. But this is not blackness; it is full of something from long ago and with the potential of something yet to be.

I look around the enclosed space and notice that it is now occupied, but I hadn’t noticed anyone enter. I go outside, into a clear starry night. That blue is still with me, and I have a feeling it will never go away. For a moment in time, I feel I have learnt how to touch the sky.

turrell 5

Touching the Sky

Cosmos means the ‘ordered whole’, and our sense of the cosmos – of the ordered whole – puts us on the trail of the patterns and principles our brains impose upon the events we experience. Pattern, cycle and order stand out most clearly overhead and, invariably, the cosmos echoes the sky. The language of the metaphor may range from mathematics to myth, but our models of the ordered whole are celestial. The arena of cosmology is the sky.[1]


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