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Performing Art
"Joseph's Coat" is artist James Turrell's first and only Florida Skyspace exhibit. It’s also his largest. Photo by Giovanni Lunardi, courtesy of James Turrell.
Arts and Entertainment Wednesday, Mar. 28, 2012 8 years ago

BACKSTAGE PASS: Sky-high Worship

by: Heidi Kurpiela Contributing Writer

Funny how a hole in the ceiling can change your perspective.

As I write this, I’m trying to conjure up the peace I felt last week, when I stretched out on my back and stared at the sky for an hour as it shifted from baby blue to black.

I can’t remember the last time I sat that still for that long, doing and saying absolutely nothing — a personal feat that was as miraculous as the view.

What was it that elicited this calm? And even more pressing: Why was my husband, with his restless leg syndrome, experiencing a similar ease?

For these answers I suggest you go see James Turrell’s Skyspace exhibit at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art.

The photo you see at left, which, by the way, is one of only two images Turrell will let you see of the space, doesn’t do it justice.

Similarly, neither will this story. But I’ll try.

As some of you know, last summer I had my first baby. He’s about 10 months old now, which means a new sense of normalcy has settled over my household.

Quiet, contemplative pursuits, such as watching the sunset with my husband, have taken a backseat to bathing, diapering and feeding a child whose favorite activities include screeching and throwing Tupperware.

Rather than accept a fate devoid of tranquility, I decided to meet it head-on inside the zen confines of Turrell’s new Skyspace.

To share in my solitude, I brought my frazzled husband, who coincidentally shares a name with the space: Joseph. (Turrell named the installation “Joseph’s Coat,” presumably after a certain Technicolor jacket.)
Viewing it during the sunset light program had been on my bucket list since singer Meklit Hadero revealed during her performance this season at the Ringling International Arts Festival that a similar Skyspace inspired the first track on her latest album.

“Walk up, walk up, straight through the roof, straight through the hole in the ceiling, take your place in the sky … ”

Dreamy and atmospheric, the song had me hooked before the refrain. I couldn’t wait to take my place in the sky.

As instructed by the museum staff, we arrived 30 minutes prior to sunset. The sun was still blinding as we walked from the visitors pavilion to the Searing Wing.

At 3,000 square feet, I knew “Joseph’s Coat” was Turrell’s largest Skyspace to date and the only one of its kind in Florida. I knew it had a 35-foot-high canopy, a square aperture in the ceiling and a central viewing area surrounded by columns.

Although I’d written about the space before and once toured it during museum hours, I was told the sunset program, an hour-long “show” complete with synchronized LED lights, was a mystical wonder and hard to describe unless you saw it in person.

I purposely avoided reading any reviews of it so I could experience it with an open mind. For all I knew, it was highbrow version of a Pink Floyd laser light show.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

A dozen or so people were spread out on yoga mats and blankets, gazing quietly at the open ceiling, like alien believers waiting to be beamed up to their mothership.

I instantly wished I’d brought a blanket. My husband wished he’d brought his iPod. The silence was deafening.

We took a spot on the benches surrounding the center and began the tedious process of waiting. Because we had arrived 30 minutes before sunset, we had to wait 30 minutes for the show to begin.

Far more important than having a blanket is having patience.

Watching the sun set in “Joseph’s Coat” is not like popping the cork on a bottle of wine and watching it with your friends on the beach.

Communing with nature is not a party.

The first set of lights was so subtle, we weren’t even sure the show had begun. Had we eaten dinner earlier, we might have been more patient.

“I think it started,” I whispered in Joe’s ear.

“I feel like I’m in a Roman fighting arena,” he whispered back.

Our stomachs were growling like angry beasts.

Some of the people on blankets were doing yoga. The rest were motionless, evidently better suited for rumination than my husband and I.

“Stop shaking your leg,” I whispered. “It’s shaking the whole bench.”

It was distracting, but not nearly as distracting as the old guy across the room that repeatedly cleared phlegm from his throat.

I decided the hippies on the floor were on to something, so I stretched out on the bench, plopping my feet on Joe’s lap and my head on my purse. It wasn’t a comfortable position, but it significantly changed the way I saw the aperture.

The sky was periwinkle at this point. Birds were gliding past. The clouds looked like vapors shifting like veils of fine cotton from left to right, a slow procession, like the trail of a wedding gown sliding down a church aisle.

Every so often I’d hear an airplane buzzing in the distance and each time the sound got louder I prayed it would cut through my piece of the sky.

I squinted my eyes and blurred the edges of the canopy out of focus so that the sky and the ceiling bled into one. Putting brackets around the sky forces you to focus on it. Manipulating it with washes of color turns it into art.

I let go.

When the lights really kicked into high gear, flooding the canopy with a slow succession of pinks and oranges, greens and purples, I exhaled so loudly I think I rattled the yogis.

My mind grew quiet. Where once I heard throat clearing, I heard white noise, a soft nothing.

For 45 more minutes I lay this way.

It was at once serene and powerful, comforting and eerie. I felt infinitesimal in all the best ways. I felt as my son must have felt the first time he stared at a mobile.


Unbelievably, Joe was also still. I smiled. We had achieved peace.

When the program ended and the house lights came on, I turned to my silent other half with curiosity.

“You were so zen,” I said sweetly.

“Yeah,” he replied. “I was asleep.”

“Joseph’s Coat” may be viewed at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art during normal museum hours. The exhibit’s sunset light program runs Thursday through Sunday. Tickets are $5. Arrive 30 minutes prior to sunset. Reservations are recommended. For more information, call 358-3180 or visit

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