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No. 1276:
A Feast of Lights

Today, light calls up the creative muse. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Two recent experiences, both about light: one was a great light and fireworks show over downtown Houston. For half an hour, lasers, fireworks and searchlights lit up our skyscrapers. It was the largest such display North America had ever seen. A million people watched from parks surrounding the center of town. Hundreds of thousands went in among the buildings to be in the middle of it.

If I'd been told I was seeing outtakes from the movie Independence Day, I'd have believed it. The whole city seemed to rise into the sky on tongues of flame. Afterward, when onlookers talked to reporters, their words were flat. No one could put the experience into words. People in the streets and city officials alike only stood with eyes glazed muttering clichés -- "Wow!" "Truly spectacular!" The only articulate response came from a teenager who ran off several lines of impromptu rap about the show.

The other experience was quite different. The night before, I'd met modern artist James Turrell at a fundraiser. We'd talked about his art, which also depends on manipulating light. That evening had a very different texture but dealt with the same issues.

Turrell is best known for his Roden Crater project. He's been turning a volcanic cone near Flagstaff, Arizona, into a special place where you can view the changing sky. Turrell does that in many ways. He also creates interior spaces with roofs that open into the sky and catch its variable light.

This gathering took place in a home that included a Turrell light-sculpture. A highly collimated light shines a rectangular beam from one upper corner of a room and strikes the opposite walls where they join at ninety degrees. As you gaze at the pool of light, your mind turns it into a large three-dimensional cube standing out from the corner of the room. It works because Turrell has arranged for you and the light source to form vanishing points of a two-point perspective. You don't know that in your head. Instead, you feel it in the pit of your stomach.

All of Turrell's art calls upon our inner eye to see what it missed at first. He was quite clear on that point. We viewers are ultimately the real creative artists. Turrell provides the light -- we complete the picture.

So I'd had two adventures with light. One was pure pop culture. The other was cerebral -- intellectual. Both helped me see what art is. Both were abstract. Both showed how art leads the mind, how it rises out of unwashed commonplace experience, and how it exposes what we first don't even know is there. Earth really is a spaceship. The changing sky really does illuminate beauty that we miss until our senses see it anew. And our own mind is the engine that completes the work -- that any artist begins.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Much has been written about Turrell's work. See, e.g., James Turell: Light & Space. New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1980. For more on the Roden Crater project see Brades, S. F., James Turrell: Air Mass. London: The South Bank Centre, 1993.


Photo by Roger Eichhorn. With permission