On James Turrell’s House of Light
Tonight we are staying in James Turrell’s House of Light in Niigata, Japan. We couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful day, or a more perfect sky — the hero, ultimately, beyond the light — clear and a quintessential shade of blue(s), plus the early warmth of spring, birds, a cool breeze, and the anticipation of summer to come. There’s something poetic about coming here when there’s more growth to be had, when days will get longer still. There’s hope in the experience.
I envisioned it to be more ‘meditative’ upon arrival but maybe that’s because we were a group here. Sarah, from Indonesia, an architecture grad student, was with us tonight and could not have been more lovely. Turrell’s intention was for people to come together in this space to experience his work together. I do think there is something significant there: the communal experience that allows for quiet. There is also the reflection that comes with introducing yourself to a stranger, in the way that shifts in the color of the sky are only perceptible relative to the color of light glowing around it. Similarly, we are different versions of ourselves with others, and sometimes the light of a stranger is what might be needed to change the color (or perception) of oneself.
The house caretaker, Itawi, greeted us at the taxi once it pulled up in front of the house, past the rice paddies, past the sculptures that dotted the road up. The house itself has a monumental feel in its scale; walking up the stairs already feels as if the house is hovering above the ground. Once inside, the experience felt quite familiar, reminiscent of a simple ryokan, but the room with the Sky Space was immediately the center of the experience. 4:40pm quality of early evening golden light floated in the air and dappled shadows on the wall. As we knelt on the tatami mats to sign and pay, Itawi said to us, “this is your House of Light family.”
After puttering around a bit with a glass of wine the standby sunset show started, then the real thing. This was definitely beautiful, as expected — perhaps less moving than I might have hoped or imagined but finally meditative nonetheless. The light varied in hue and intensity and I wondered if the light shifts mirrored the rate at which the sun sets. It was a sweet experience to lay together and surely was a show.
After, we were delivered our dinner (a slightly cold, hodgepodge version of a kaiseke dinner) over which we chatted about the US, Indonesia, royalty, families, how Jon and I met, places to go, spaces to see, cultures, and life. I think the dinner could easily have been one of the pillars of the experience if prepared with a level of consideration equal to the art, but for the purposes of connecting and reflecting it did the job. After dinner we visited the downstairs bath which was essential to this experience — not so much for the lights designed for the bath but for the simple effect of warm water to soothe the body and brain and prepare for sleep. Our futons are covered in a muddy pink.
This morning at 3:40am we opened the roof to the sunset show. Only an hour-and-a-half before that we woke up parched and overheating in our little futon nests. Jon pressed the button that opens the roof and the beeping began, cueing the roof to slide open, as if the bottom of a ship passing overhead. In the many seconds it took to open I wondered if we would be able to tell the difference between the darkness of the roof and the darkness of the sky, but you could tell; the sky still emitted light even with stars glittering across it. Cold air rushed in and evened out the climate in our space.
At exactly 3:43am the lights turned on with a deep magenta purple, the beginning of the standby show. This was actually the highlight for me — waiting for the sky to move from dark to light, from night to day. Maybe it’s because I never see this time of the day but it did move me, the thought of the world becoming alive and anew again, together. The stars disappeared and birds began, first to the right, then behind us, then surrounding us, as if part of the work itself.
During the sunrise show the sky’s perceived color shifted through blues to purple to peach to green to a grey and through again, and sometimes the light leveled out to white so you could remember what you are looking at. Each color moved through with thoughts, too, of life and relationships and babies and all the things that make up values, when the day (and mind) is pure. It was a morning meditation, one we succumb to, that reminds us, or tries to, in our vulnerable sleepy states.
We took a nap after the sunrise light show, with the roof still open, under the comforter. When we fell asleep the sky was white and when we woke the sky was light blue, with wisps of clouds and the continued sound of birds. The breeze was warmer.
In the few hours before we had to leave, we ate our small convenience store breakfast, Jon went to a run, Sarah left (we exchanged emails and she took my photo; “I hope you find what you are looking for,” she said. “Inspiration.”), and I traced the house barefoot with my two cameras — through open doors and over stones and up the stairs and back down again. I think it’s important to have the house to yourself for a little bit, even if it’s supposed to be for a few, to absorb the materiality and details, all quite humble. I bathed one last time and we lay down, roof now closed, before our taxi came for us and we descended down the stairs.