“Delightful! Wonderful! Incomparable!” – Thoughts about holy spaces

Doug Wheeler, RM 669 (1969)

Doug Wheeler, RM 669 (1969)

For the viewer/participant of Light and Space art, a significant outcome of this experimentation is that the works of art perceptually condition us, whether we are aware of it or not.[i]

– Dawna Schuld

In 1914 the German writer Paul Scheerbart published The Gray Cloth and the Ten Per Cent White, a novel about an architect who constructed buildings made of colored glass. For the opening of each new building, his wife always wore gray clothing containing 10 per cent white, in order to intensify by contrast the effect of all the colors. Anyone who entered these luminous environments felt enveloped by the sublime. “The splendor of the colored glass ornament was so enhanced by the sun that one was at a loss for words to praise this wonder of color. Many visitors shouted repeatedly, ‘Delightful! Wonderful! Incomparable!’”[ii]

As the architect’s fame grew, he became fond of tossing out pithy aphorisms: “Glass brings a new era.” … “Building in brick only does us harm.” … “Colored glass destroys hatred.” He would have loved Twitter. Scheerbart’s utopian dream of transforming human nature through salubrious environments would soon fade in the disillusioning violence of the Great War, but it would surface again in the idealism of Modernist architecture: Design can change the world. Better buildings will make better people.

Architectural idealism has a long history. Plato thought that measure, form and order in the built environment had significant shaping power for both the soul and the community. Eighteenth-century Anglicans applied an exacting symmetry to church buildings in the hope that regularity and order in places of worship would, over time, help produce constancy and balance in believers. Order and form would tame unruly passions.

Such ambitions are easily mocked. In his brilliant and entertaining documentary, Los Angeles Plays Itself, Thom Andersen observes that well-designed environments have become for the movies the equivalent of the bad guy’s black hat. “One of the glories of Los Angeles is its Modernist residential architecture, but Hollywood movies have almost systematically denigrated this heritage by casting many of these houses as the residences of movie villains.”

When L.A. Confidential (1997) placed the sleazy criminal Pierce Patchett in the Lovell House, Richard Neutra’s definitive manifesto for better living, the architecture critic for the Los Angeles Times wrote that the “house’s slick, meticulous form seemed the perfect frame for that kind of power. Neutra’s glass walls open up to expose the dark side of our lives. They suggest the erotic, the broken, the psychologically impure.”[iii] In fact, Andersen points out, the film’s director was a great admirer of Lovell House, whose actual history closely reflected its architect’s ideals. It produced no villains.

Of course there is no simple correlation between environment and ethics or spirituality. A beautiful space does not automatically produce beautiful people. But can more modest claims be made for the influential nature of designed environments?

In the mid-1960s, the Light and Space artists of southern California began to create works that were not objects to look at but environments to experience. “I’ve always been interested in how much I can take away,”[iv] said Bruce Nauman, who stripped a space of light and feeling to create Room with My Soul Left Out, Room That Does Not Care (1984). Its chilling title might be applied to many contemporary enclosures, from the black holes of prisons to many of the places where we shop and work. But most of the Light and Space artists, while also stripping away much of what the public expects from an artwork, preferred to create rooms that do care.

At New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1970, Robert Irwin was offered a dingy room for whatever installation he wanted to use it for. “The room really was an unhappy space,” Irwin noted.[v] So he cleaned the skylight and installed on the ceiling alternating cool and warm fluorescents, veiled by a translucent scrim. There was nothing “in” the room except for what Irwin called a “subliminal rainbow” effect of the light. People would wander through, see nothing there, and continue on to the next room, full of Brancusi sculptures – something they actually could look at. While they didn’t notice anything in Irwin’s room and thought it empty or unfinished, they did tend to remark on how bad the lighting seemed in the Brancusi room. The pleasant glow of the first space made them critical of the less luminous space that followed. An intentional environment had changed the way they saw the world outside it. Such work has been called “an art of incremental resistances that seeks not to change the world but to sharpen our perception of it.”[vi] 21

Both art and religion – sometimes in collaboration, sometimes independently – have created physical environments designed not only to provide a refuge from the prevailing fixtures and forces of the culture, but to generate resistance to those forces by providing, through a sense of otherworldliness or unnameable presence, a critique of culture’s totalizing claim to be all there is. Such spaces pose questions about what we have settled for as reality, and about what else might lie beyond our cultural constructions.

Critic/historian/collector Melinda Wortz called the Light and Space artists “architects of nothingness,” seeing their work as transcending the purely material level. “By reducing the physical and visual incident in their art to almost nothing, or at least creating the illusion of nothingness, they challenge us to share in these perceptions. And they are important perceptions, which go beyond common sense experience of ineffable states of consciousness, giving us access to the unfamiliar, the unknown, or those levels of knowing that cannot be translated into words. These are precisely the states of being least addressed by our culture at large.”[vii]

A Zen garden has been described as a “locus of stillness, purity, and silence in the midst of ephemerality and sensation, a refuge that intentionally avoids (in the short run) any reference to the outside world.”[viii] Many of us have found such “holy” spaces not only in religious constructions, but in art and nature as well. And whether for refreshment, renewal, or revelation, we are drawn to visit them, to dwell for a time in their aura and remember what the culture has forgotten.

Orthodox icons have long striven to provide a window into a transcendent world. The Light and Space artists, while shunning any theological presumptions for their “disorienting metaphysical enigmas and wordlessly ecstatic experiences,”[ix] seem to take us right through that window to put us inside. As Eric Orr said of his Zero Mass (1972-3), “an uncanny feeling of merging with the space may occur when the viewer loses an absolute sense of the boundaries of the room and perhaps of their body.”[x] Using faint ambient light and coved corners to inhibit visual perception of edges or walls, he dematerialized the space, making it an apparently boundless void where “our selves are tenuously held together in some sort of rapprochement with the surrounding emptiness. If at first it appears that we are surrounded by nothing, to what are we responding and why?”[xi]

These artists all stress the materiality of their work. Their environments are not just metaphors for something else. They are actual physical events, even if not as solid and tangible as traditional art. Doug Wheeler, describing one work, said it “was a real space – not illusory – it was a cloud of light in constant flux. That molecular mist is the most important thing I do. It comes out of my way of seeing from living in Arizona – and the constant awareness of the landscape and the clouds.”[xii]

So is anything being intimated or shown besides the specific phenomena of these environments? Does a hidden reality or transcendent dimension lie behind the physical experience? Where does experience meet faith? And how important is it to put language to the experience? Does conscious reflection about such experience diminish or deepen its effect on us?

Whatever these artists believe, think or intend with their work, those of us who think theologically can’t help but find them revelatory, pointing beyond themselves. A sacramental view of things regards matter as the essential means of encountering Spirit. The givenness of the material world – light and water, bread and wine, flesh and blood – is how we begin to know anything, including the divine.

James Turrell, one of the best known of the Light and Space artists, has spoken of “the need and thought of spiritual sensibilities or dimensions beyond us,” though he avoids the “vocabulary of religion.”[xiii] His Quaker sensibilities prefer direct, unmediated experience. But when he speaks of the “thing-ness” of light which “becomes the revelation,” he blurs the opposition between material and spiritual, leaping across the either-or dualities as adeptly as the mystics.[xiv]

But whatever happens, whatever is encountered in these works, is it merely private experience, a matter solely of personal perception? Olafur Eliasson, an Icelandic artist, is insistent about the social dimension of his work, which is designed not only to produce wonder but also a collective “co-presence” in the sharing of the experiential space.

Olafur Eliason, The weather project (2003) at Tate Modern, London

Olafur Eliason, The weather project (2003) at Tate Modern, London

In The weather project (2003), he installed “a giant yellow orb like a dark winter sun” in the 500-foot long Turbine Hall at London’s Tate Modern. Sixteen nozzles sprayed mist into the atmosphere, filling the space with a light fog. Three hundred mirrored panels on the ceiling reflected the people below who glowed in the brownish-yellow haze of the sun’s two hundred sodium lamps.

During that winter season, two million people visited the museum to stand, sit or lie beneath the sun. It had the effect of Scheerbart’s fictional glass buildings: Delightful! Wonderful! Incomparable! Even if they arrived by themselves, people were immersed in provisional community. Sometimes they spontaneously arranged themselves into geometric patterns, symbols or even words. As Madeleine Grynsztejn observed, “This kind of participation calls us out of and beyond ourselves, an effect reinforced when witnessed and shared by others.”[xv]

The weather project, like many of the Light and Space artists’ “experiential processes,” bears resemblance to my ideal of church: a “holy” space, differentiated from the “ordinary” world, dedicated to the participatory experience of being called out of ourselves into an experience of wonder and praise. Not everyone shares this conception of Christian worship spaces. The stricter liturgical theologians argue that God is only present in the assembly and its liturgical actions, not in the physical space itself. Early Calvinists used to lock their churches during the week to discourage the idea that a space without a congregation at prayer retained any residue of holiness.

Peter Hammond, in his influential book, Liturgy and Architecture, argues that a church is not a place for a casual visitor to have a worship experience. It is not a shelter for an altar but for an assembly, and it has no meaning or symbolic power apart from its liturgical function. While I would agree that the primary function of a church is to shelter and enable the communal liturgy, I am sympathetic to Joseph Campbell’s view that one can be “reborn spiritually by entering and leaving a church.”[xvi]

The Light and Space artists would not make such large claims. But something unique and even significant can happen in their alternative spaces. Maybe colored glass can’t destroy hatred, but can certain kinds of experiences in certain kinds of places work on individuals and communities over time in positive, formative ways? In Dawna Schuld’s view, “we take the work with us: our heightened senses, now attuned to the subtleties of the conscious fringe, encounter a more vivid world than the one we left behind.”[xvii]

Eric Orr’s Sunrise (1976) was a nine by twelve foot room sheathed in lead, cutting off all sounds from the outer world. The space was quite dark. “I am engaged in using silence as a color,” Orr explained.[xviii] But the darkness was not total. A single bar of sunlight, guided into the space by a series of mirrors, moved slowly up the wall as time passed.

It reminded art critic Thomas McEvilley of the secret inner chamber of an Egyptian temple, and he reflected on the effect of being there: “Orr’s goal of producing spaces that will transform everyday experiences was mildly fulfilled here. Yet no one flew out the door like a bird. Rather, one walked out as one went in, but with a certain mental aura, as of secret ambiences and veiled promises of transcendence.”[xix]

Related posts

The Woven Light: Reflections on the Transfiguration

“Owl among the ruins” – What shall we do with empty churches?

[i] Dawna Schuld, “Practically Nothing: Light, Space, and the Pragmatics of Phenomenology,” in Robin Clark, ed., Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 111

[ii] Paul Scheerbart , The Gray Cloth, tr. John A. Stuart (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press), 3

[iii] Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003/2013), written and directed by Thom Andersen, Part 1, chapter 12: Modern Architecture

[iv] quoted in Michael Auping, “Stealth Architecture: The Rooms of Light and Space,” in Clark, p. 103

[v] Jan Butterfield, The Art of Light and Space (New York: Abbeville 1993), 24

[vi] Take Your Time: Olafur Eliasson, ed. Madeleine Grynsztejn (NY: Thames & Hudson, 2003), 22

[vii] Butterfield, 16

[viii] Lindsay Jones, The Hermeneutics of Sacred Architecture: Experience, Integration, Comparison, Vol. Two: Hermeneutical Calisthentics: A Morphology of Ritual-Architectural Priorities (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), 280

[ix] Ross Weszsteon, referring to James Turrell, q. in Butterfield, 78

[x] Clark, 45

[xi] Schuld, 120

[xii] Butterfield, 121

[xiii] ibid., 82

[xiv] Michael Govan, “Inner Light: The Radical Reality of James Turrell,” in James Turrell: A Retrospective (Michael Govan & Christine Y. Kim, New York: DelMonico Books, 2014), 49

[xv] Take Your Time: Olafur Eliasson, ed. Madeleine Grynsztejn (NY: Thames & Hudson, 2003), 19

[xvi] I can’t find this citation, which has been in my church architecture notes for years, but it does sound like authentic Campbell!

[xvii] Schuld, 121

[xviii] Butterfield, 159

[xix] ibid., 160

The Woven Light: Reflections on the Transfiguration

James Turrell, Arrowhead (2009)

James Turrell, Arrowhead (2009)

We would have thrown our clothes away for lightness,
But that even they, though sour and travel stained,
Seemed, like our flesh, made of immortal substance.
And the soiled flax and wool lay light upon us.
Like friendly wonders, flower and flock entwined
As in a morning field. Was it a vision?
Or did we see that day the unseeable
One glory of the everlasting world
Perpetually at work, though never seen
Since Eden locked the gate that’s everywhere
And nowhere?…

– Edwin Muir, “The Transfiguration”

Martin Scorcese’s 1988 film, The Last Temptation of Christ,” was criticized by many for its eccentric portrayal of a Jesus deeply conflicted by the fierce struggle between his two natures. As one reviewer wondered, “Is he God or is he nuts?” Scorcese, who specializes in tormented, confused male characters full of nervous intensity, defended his approach as an attempt to explore Christ’s humanity without the blinding glow of divine self-assurance that made many movie Jesuses seem stiff, complacent and unreal.

“What we were taught in Catholic schools emphasized the divine side of Jesus,” said Scorcese, who had considered priesthood in his adolescence. “Jesus would walk into the room and you would know he was God. Maybe he glowed in the dark or something, I don’t know, but this is the impression they gave us as children.”

The Jesus of Matthew, Mark and Luke does not glow, except in that strange moment called the Transfiguration, celebrated on August 6th in the liturgical calendar. This feast day goes largely unnoticed now in the western churches, who have essentially transferred it to the last Sunday of Epiphany. This neglect of August 6 is in part a concession to the decline of weekday celebrations, but it may also reflect a discomfort with the story itself, which feels like myth or vision rather than actual history. Not even the risen Christ matched the glow of the Transfiguration. What are we being asked to believe here?

We can never know the phenomenon behind the reported perceptions by Peter, James and John. But the symbolic dimensions of the narrative are clear, linking the incident to the ancestral epiphanies of Moses and Elijah. There is a mountain, where earth below meets heaven above. There is a cloud of unknowing, veiling divine presence in hiddenness and mystery. And there is a voice, making contact with human sense, rupturing the boundary between holy and profane to affirm the unique filial status of Jesus as God’s Beloved “Son.”

But what about that “dazzling” glow? What did the disciples actually see in Jesus on that mountain? Was it an unrepeatable moment, a temporary endowment bestowed upon Jesus to make a point to doubting disciples, or was it something Jesus always possessed?

Gregory of Palamas, a 14th century Orthodox theologian, argued the latter. He based his influential meditation practice of Hesychasm on contemplation of the “uncreated light” first seen at the Transfiguration. This light, he taught, was not an ephemeral experience of the senses but the unmediated presence of God. Although this holy light could be seen through physical eyes, it was not a natural light. It was, in fact, the uncreated energies of the Godhead, the splendor of the age to come, a light shining from God’s future into the present moment.

Christ is transfigured, not by putting on some quality he did not possess previously, nor by changing into something he never was before, but by revealing to his disciples what he truly was, in opening their eyes and in giving sight to those who were blind. For while remaining identical to what he had been before, he appeared to the disciples in his splendor; he is indeed the true light, the radiance of glory.[i]

Whatever we make of Gregory’s metaphysical claims, which were disputed by many of his contemporaries, the spiritual resonance of light is undeniable and universal. It is always seems to be about something more than physics. It seems inevitably imbued with Spirit.

Annie Dillard describes “mornings, when light spreads over the pastures like wings, and fans a secret color into everything, and beats the trees senseless with beauty…Outside it is bright…It is the one glare of holiness; it is bare and unspeakable. There is no speech or language; there is nothing, no one thing, nor motion nor time. There is only this everything.”[ii]

Where does such light come from? Is it something that happens to our eyes but is not really in the world, or is it somehow there, in the heart of things, “born of the one light Eden saw play?” Is it not just a simulacrum of divinity, but a direct manifestation?

James Turrell, Breathing Light (2013)

James Turrell, Breathing Light (2013)

James Turrell, one of the most celebrated of the contemporary “Light and Space” artists nurtured under California skies, has been exploring light and its effects since the 1960s. His mesmerizing spaces invite participants to experience not objects made visible by light, but light itself in an astonishing repertoire of varying colors and brightness. If there are walls, they seem to dissolve into the immateriality of radiance. If there is a ceiling, it may have a large opening inviting us to contemplate the luminous canopy of sky. “Light,” says Turrell, “is not so much something that reveals as it is itself the revelation.”

We eat light, drink it in through our skins. With a little more exposure to light, you feel part of things physically. I like the power of light and space physically because then you can order it materially. Seeing is a very sensuous act – there’s a sweet deliciousness to feeling yourself see something.[iii]

For many of us fortunate to have savored the deliciousness of Turrell’s light spaces, feeling ourselves see something is not just an intellectual or psychological act. It is spiritual – the “glare of holiness … beating us senseless with beauty.”

Turrell’s own Quaker tradition says that prayerful attention is “going inside to greet the light.” But is the radiance of divine beauty just in our souls, or does it permeate the universe? Does it show itself to us here, there and everywhere, as it did to Peter, James and John?

David Bentley Hart, an Orthodox theologian, proposes creation as a manifestation of God’s infinite luminosity, what he calls “the agile radiance of the Spirit.”[iv] We see this radiance not by looking away from the world, but by looking more deeply into it. But when the light is in eclipse, what then? “Sometimes,” says Bruce Cockburn, “you have to kick the darkness till it bleeds daylight.” Even at the Transfiguration, according to an Anglican midrash by a seventeenth-century bishop, Moses and Elijah felt impelled to warn Jesus about the suffering and darkness awaiting him once he descended the mountain:

A strange opportunity … when his face shone like the sun, to tell him it must be blubbered and spat upon;… and whilst he was Transfigured on the Mount, to tell him how he must be Disfigured on the Cross![v]

The poet Kathleen Raine perfectly describes the utter bleakness when “the curtain is down, the veil drawn” over the world’s deep radiance. “Nothing means or is,” she says.[vi]

Yet I saw once
The woven light of which all these are made
Otherwise than this. To have seen
Is to know always.

[i] St. Gregory Palamas, The Triads, in Richard Harries, Art and the Beauty of God: A Christian Understanding (London: Mowbray, 1993), 85

[ii] Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm (New York: Harper Perennial, 1998), 67-8

[iii] q. in Michael Govan, “Inner Light: The Radical Reality of James Turrell”, James Turrell: A Retrospective (New York: DelMonico Books, 2014), 13

[iv] The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth (David Bentley Hart, Eerdmans 2003), 292

[v] Joseph Hall, Contemplations upon the principal passages of the Old and New Testaments, 1612-28, found on Google Books, p. 383

[vi] Kathleen Raine, in Harries, 87