Visitors can once again watch the sun set through James Turrell’s Austin ‘Skyspace’
For the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, the James Turrell Skyspace on the UT Austin campus is officially reopening Monday.
The work of art, called The Color Inside, is a naked-eye observatory located on the roof of the campus’ Student Activity Center. At sunset, a programmed light sequence fills the walls and ceiling of the oval-shaped building with color. Visitors look up at an oculus carved out of the center of the ceiling. As the sun sets and the lights shift, your eye perceives the sky in ever-changing hues.
“It fills the space with different colored lights that transform your perceptions of the sky,” says Andrée Bober, founding director and curator of the university’s public art program, Landmarks. “The sky appears in many different colors, which is kind of disorienting, but it’s also mesmerizing.”
Bober helped bring the work to UT in 2013. She says more than 75,000 people visit the Skyspace each year.
“It’s an art world destination, and people come to Austin from around the world in order to experience the Skyspace,” she said. “James Turrell has a very loyal following of people who are very enthusiastic about his work, and the university is really proud to have one of his premier spaces right in the heart of our campus.”
Turrell is an American artist who works with light and space. He has more than 80 Skyspaces, or chambers with an opening in the ceiling where people can look up at the sky, around the world. The Color Inside is one of only 12 public Skyspaces in the U.S.
“My work has no object, no image and no focus,” Turrell has said of his work. “With no object, no image and no focus, what are you looking at? You are looking at you looking. What is important to me is to create an experience of wordless thought.”
The Skyspace is open to the public throughout the day and is often used as a quiet space where people can unplug and reset, Bober said.
To view the light sequence at sunset, though, people need to reserve one of the limited seats online. (The light sequence also happens at sunrise, but the Student Activity Center is usually closed then, so viewings are rarely open to the public.)
Landmarks began releasing appointments earlier this month, and the first viewing takes place tonight. But if you haven’t snagged a seat yet, it might be a while before you can. When Landmarks posted a month’s worth of reservations online Feb. 1, they filled up that day.
“People were very eager to get back into the space,” Bober said.
New spots get posted — for four weeks out — every day at 8 a.m. People can also wait on standby at the Skyspace, in case of a no-show.
The Skyspace closed in March 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and shut down the UT campus. When UT reopened months later, Bober said, Landmarks wanted to reopen the Skyspace as well — but there was some much-needed work that had to be done first.
The space is built to exact specifications so viewers can see certain colors. The ceiling around the oculus, the large eye-shaped opening, is so thin it’s susceptible to cracking. The space is also open to the elements. The oculus is never covered. That means when it rains (or snows), it rains (or snows) inside the Skyspace, too. A drain in the center ensures the space doesn’t flood.
Without routine maintenance for months, the space needed power-washing, repainting and plastering. The computer that runs the light sequence needed to be replaced, too.
“It took us a while to do those things and raise the money to be able to do those things,” Bober said. “We got a lot of help from our friends, so we're really excited to be able to relaunch on Valentine's Day.”
With the reopening of The Color Inside, Landmarks is also resuming its monthly music series Songs in the Skyspace. Musicians from various genres perform live inside the space. The Feb. 20 show, which is already sold out, features Justice Phillips. Other upcoming musicians include Hum A Cappella, Sonic Starchild, Beauties and the Beat, and Lesly Reynaga.
Bober says every experience in the Skyspace is unique. Sometimes it’s cloudy, and raindrops drizzle through the roof. Other times, the view through the oculus is crystal clear. You might spot a plane or see the moon. The noises fluctuate, too. You might hear the bells of the UT Tower. People conversing. A leaf blower. The Longhorn Band playing nearby. Other times, it’s perfectly silent, and the world falls away.
“You never know what's going to happen,” Bober said. “Each element that plays a part in that experience is significant. It's distinctive and unique, and it makes that particular viewing different from any one that will ever happen again.”