Artist James Turrell’s pioneering technique focuses
on light, space and human perception. ‘It’s about
reduction of detail to the point where you struggle to
perceive what’s going on,’ says Doug James.
Turrell’s degree in perceptual psychology included the
study of Ganzfeld – a phenomenon of visual perception
where the eye, if looking at an entirely featureless field,
has nothing to focus on, leaving the brain with no fixed
idea of what it is seeing.
Turrell’s skyspace, developed from the start of his
career, involves piercing a hole in the roof of a building
with the sky acting as the light source. He uses this idea
in his installations, in which he cuts a section from a
wall behind which lies an artificial light source.
‘The illumination must be completely homogenous
across the space,’ says James, ‘and the edges of the void
must be razor sharp. They can’t appear to have any
‘In an architectural context, this technique is useful
predominantly to make people stop and take note,’ says
James. ‘It’s also a useful source of light, but if someone’s
really in touch with their surroundings, they will pause
and wonder what’s happening. It forms a dialogue
between the architecture and the viewer.’
And the designer has control over the effect. Using
sky gives the benefit of an ever-changing visual field,
while an electric source can illuminate in a variety
of ways. ‘The light source in Turrell’s pieces are
fluorescent to give an even spread of light. LEDs are
less ambient in character, making the effect slightly
trickier to achieve.’
‘The feature must be completely clear of detail, which
includes loose wires and visible equipment,’ says James.
‘Any dribble of paint or blob of plaster in the space
will give the game away.’ The conviction behind James’
warnings comes from personal experience: his first
attempt over 15 years ago was thwarted by one stray
blob of plaster on the top surface.
‘The details were right but the contractors weren’t
able to work at that level of precision,’ he adds. A
previous example at the Whitegoods stand at the
100% Design exhibition several years ago proves that
it is possible to achieve that kind of precision. James
and his team cut a hole in the ceiling and used the
bottom half of a septic tank to form the clean, detail-free ‘void’ behind.
‘This guy’s a bit of a hero among lighting designers.
He’s done some amazing stuff experientially,’ says
‘You can step inside his works and really have an
experience with light.’
Above: Turrell’s walk-in
installation at the Wolfsburg
Art Museum in Germany,
aptly called Ganzfield Piece,
featured a ‘viewing space’and a
Opposite: The wall or ceiling
must have enough depth to
create a decent ‘void’ in the