Even viewed from a rooftop, a university campus appears to be a bustling place. Perhaps nowhere more so than at the University of Texas’ newish Student Activity Center.
With its eateries, dining areas, multiple lounges, student meeting rooms, a theater and an auditorium, the place buzzes. The doors swoosh open and shut nonstop. Students perch in seemingly every corner. An ambient sound cloud of chattering voices and elevator bells and footsteps floats over everything. Most nights, the center is open until 3 a.m.
The rooftop features a deck-like space with outside furniture for yet more lounging.
And just past that lounging area, a strange, white elliptical structure roughly 30 feet long rises up, more sculptural than architectural in its presence. Inside is a roofless chamber open to the sky. A sleek built-in bench hugs the walls.
This curvilinear chamber is “The Color Inside,” created by American artist James Turrell.
One of the most important living artists today, Turrell is a pioneer in the use of light as an artistic medium. “The Color Inside” is one of his “skyspaces,” a roofless structure designed to capture a view of the sky, the aperture surrounded by LED lights whose changing color radically yet subtly alter a person’s perception of the heavens.
Commissioned by UT’s public art program, Landmarks, “The Color Inside” is a permanent work of art, one of several daring new pieces added to the campus’ collection since the Landmarks program started in 2008. Funding for Landmarks comes from a UT policy established in 2007 that sets aside up to two percent of the cost of capital improvements for public art.
“The Color Inside” will open Saturday. Turrell will participate in public conversation about the work on Friday.
And while Turrell timed the hourlong program of changing LED light to coincide with sunrise and sunset each day, the piece will be available for quiet contemplation whenever the Student Activity Center is open.
Admission will always be free for “The Color Inside,” and it is open to the public. (Reservations will be taken for the first several weeks the piece is open. See box for information.)
The neat, oval-shaped aperture frames an uncommon, horizonless view — the sky uninterrupted by so much as a sliver of a tree branch or the corner edge of the building.
The bench seats about 25 people. And on a recent evening, an invited group settled in just as the day’s light began to ebb.
Hidden from direct view, the LED lights cast color up the walls and onto the edges surrounding the aperture.
At first, the colored light appears pale, a subtle violet shade that makes the early evening sky look yellow. Then, subtly, the projected hues begin to change.
Over the course of an hour, the colors shift, saturating the space with intense and varying shades of purple, green, yellow, pink, blue. And through the aperture in the ceiling, a remarkable visual phenomena happens. The sky appears in complementary hues. Walls awash in blue make the sky look yellow. A flush of pink turns the sky green.
In naming “The Color Inside,” Turrell said, “I was thinking about what you see inside, and inside the sky, and what the sky holds within it that we don’t see the possibility of in our regular life.”
A native of Los Angeles, a recipient of the MacArthur Foundation genius grant and a licensed pilot, Turrell, 70, was raised a Quaker, and the silent, contemplative practices of that faith continue to have a primary role in his art. (In Houston, Turrell created a skyspace for the Live Oak Friends Meeting House.)
“There is a truth in light,” Turrell once told an interviewer.
This summer, Turrell was the subject of a highly unusual retrospective that took place concurrently at three major museums: the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts-Houston and New York’s Guggenheim Museum. In terms of sheer square feet of museum gallery space, the tripartite Turrell survey was the largest simultaneous dedication of museum space ever to an artist.
Nevertheless, because of their environmental specificity — and because they are permanent structures — Turrell’s more than 80 skyspaces are not always the most accessible for a regular artgoer. Many skyspaces are in far-flung places; many are privately owned.
“The Color Inside” provides Austin a remarkable opportunity to have a publicly accessible skyspace.
(In addition to the Friends Meeting House in Houston, Rice University last year inaugurated the skyspace “Twilight Epiphany,” with Rice alumna and Austin resident Suzanne Deal Booth donating the $5 million for the commission.)
Landmarks director Andrée Bober selected Turrell for the Student Activity Center, which opened in 2011, after a student committee came up with a list of desires for the building features. Among them was a quiet space for reflection.
Bober says the beauty of Turrell’s skyspace is that, despite its conceptual nature and technical sleight-of-hand, it is accessible to everyone.
“You don’t need instructions for this,” says Bober. “You don’t have to know anything in advance or in particular to be swept up and have a very visceral connection with the experience of this” artwork.
“It gives you a reason to slow down, look up at the sky — really look and really pay attention to the world around you.”
“The Color Inside”
Where: Student Activity Center rooftop garden, 2201 Speedway on the University of Texas campus
Opening: 6:25 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday
Tours: 2 and 3 p.m. Saturday. Tours to the Ransom Center and the Blanton Museum of Art to view additional works by James Turrell.
Ongoing viewing: Optimal viewing is at sunrise or sunset during the programmed light sequence that lasts about an hour. However, the skyspace is open as contemplative space whenever the Student Activity Center is open. See project website for hours.
Parking: Brazos Garage, 210 E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.
Information: 512-232-5904, www.landmarks.utexas.edu
“A Conversation with James Turrell”
When: Noon, Friday
Where: Student Activity Center Ballroom