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Phantom Cinema: James Turrell at Tremenheere

Rupert White



Tremenheere Sculpture Park has not one, but two works by American light artist James Turrell.

The first was a sky-space installed there in 1999, at the time of the solar eclipse. Called 'The Elliptic Ecliptic' and made with shiny corrugated metal (right), it was sited high on the hillside and was always intended to be temporary.

Now its more permanent stone successor (detail below left) is the star attraction of the spectacular park overlooking Mount's Bay, and visiting it by climbing the steep paths through the gardens is a bit like making a pilgrimage to a holy shrine.

Renamed Tewlwolow Kernow (=Twilight in Cornwall), this larger stone structure is in the same location as the 1999 work. It is now partially sunk into the the hillside, surrounded by carefully placed exotic plants, grasses, palms and succulents, and has an ante-chamber and long stone corridor leading to a space with its roof open to the sky.

On a clear day, the sun casts a huge oval pool of light on the crisp white walls inside it. Looking up through the opening, the sky seems darker and bluer, and the clouds seem to move faster. At other times of day, especially dusk, the experience of the light and colour of the sky changes dramatically. Certainly your perception is altered, and it's not purely a retinal experience, the work completely envelops you. The walls curve ambiguously heavenwards, and with no clear horizontals or verticals to latch onto, the overall experience is disorientating and vertigo-inducing: creating an unfamiliar but not unpleasant mixture of awe and claustrophobia.

If the sky space is popular and well known, airy and light, its sibling is in every respect its opposite. This, the second Turrell work, is underground and hidden in a darker, damper corner of the garden. It's not advertised and is rarely open to the public, but in many ways it's more interesting.

It was completed eight years after the first, using a pre-existing subterranean water tank, and is called Aqua Oscura. The mossy entrance (below right) is rather unassuming, but once inside you're plunged immediately into cool sepulchral darkness. The entrance corridor is less than two feet wide, and you have no choice but to shuffle along it, feeling your way along the clammy stone walls until the space opens up, waiting for what seems like an eternity for your eyes to adjust to the low light. Blind whilst you do so, the only sounds are watery noises from the nearby stream, and mournful drips from inside the chamber.

Slowly over several minutes, an image of trees appears on the wall in front of you, but it is faint and unclear and seems to hover in a liminal space, between perception and imagination, lost in the neurones of the brain. It slowly becomes clearer and more distinct, until it's possible to make out individual leaves and branches, but even as they become clearer, they remain a ghostly monochrome: black and white because at such low light levels the colour-sensitive cone-cells of the eye do not work. The miraculous revelation of the trees is therefore both hugely joyful and hugely disturbing, seen as if with the eyes of another.

Aqua Oscura is, of course, a camera obscura. In the roof is a metal plate with an aperture the size of a small pea drilled through it. Baffles and a mirror serve to project the image of the tree canopy on the wall of the water tank. Like the sky-space, the work is not merely aesthetic in the simple sense of being pleasing to the senses. Turrell is part of a lineage of artists who explore the nature of perception and the self, and these two powerful, diametrically opposed works, poised like day and night, life and death at the poles of the garden, demonstrate this perfectly.