Picture the calmest, bluest sky that you know. Mine comes from the dusk of Sacramento summers: a dark but softly glowing cobalt blue sky. That’s the sky that contains every summer evening of my childhood. That blue marks the cooling of a brilliant heat for me, and, at the same time, the blue that remembers that heat, something like the center of a match’s flame.
In 2003, my sister and I walked down the cool white entrance ramp into the Henry Art Gallery. We rounded the corner, went down the stairs. A large panel of that summer blue met us on our left, high up on the wall. A pyramid of stairs pointed up towards the panel. Our eyebrows lifted, we cocked our heads to the side a bit. Hm, interesting. Blue, rectangle, stairs. Simple enough. We knew it was contemporary art, so we thought we’d give it a chance, take a closer look.
And then it happened.
“Would you like to go inside?”
The voice came—not from the blue light—it wasn’t that kind of magic, not yet—but from the art docent who had been quietly standing in the corner of the room.
“What? Inside?” We still stood, confused.
“You just have to take your shoes off.” He gestured to the wooden benches behind us. They had cubbyholes and now we saw a few sets of shoes.
We took off our shoes—this, too, felt like childhood, like home, where everyone had to take off their shoes—and left them by the benches. We looked back at the docent.
“So—we can just go in?”
He smiled. “Yep. Just go up the stairs.”
The stairs in James Turrell’s installation Spread are a stark pyramid. They lead up to that blue panel, some 15 feet off the museum floor. This height means that your sense of a solid foundation recedes further and further the higher you climb. By the time you reach the top of the stairs, you’re standing on a fairly narrow platform. You have to climb, just a bit, to reach into the panel.
Or, what you thought was a panel. What you thought was a panel is actually a room filled with the most lush, calming light imaginable. You can barely see the corners or the walls of the room. By your internal architectural logic you know that there should be a wall facing you when you enter the room. But somehow, somehow, you can’t see where that wall should be. You don’t know where the far horizon of the room ends. The sharpest edges in that space—it’s no longer a room—are the edges of that panel where you climbed in. The panel’s now a window, looking back onto the museum floor.
But the space continues to defy your architectural logic, to twist all your instincts at being confined. Usually a window is an invitation, calling you to look outside. But the not-horizon of the room compels you further in. You don’t feel confined; you feel expansive. You want to drink that blue, to drink the light as if it were water. The light is that fluid, that soft, that nourishing.
So you walk as far as the docent will let you walk. And you drink.
When the docent asked us, “Do you want to go inside?” it was beyond Alice’s fall down the rabbit hole, beyond the children’s journey through the wardrobe into Narnia. Childhood wish-fulfillment beyond wildest expectations.
Do you want to go inside the light? Yes. Yes, we do.
That’s where I want to write: in the blue that marks the cooling of a brilliant heat, in the blue that remembers that heat. In the blue at the center of a match’s flame. It’s the space that defies architectural logic. It’s the space that compels us to drink, where we can’t see the horizon.
I’d like to submit this to The Rumpus’s series, “Where I Write,” so would love constructive feedback. I worry that it’s not…something…enough. Alternately, please leave your response to the Reverb 11 prompt–”Describe an unexpected moment, activity, sighting or conversation that touched you during July.” I’d really love to hear from you.