James Turrell’s Skyspace and Perception

[This post is a bit different than my usual posts. No spoilers!]

When my spouse and I visited the Henry Art Gallery at University of Washington, I was overwhelmed by the experience of the Skyspace designed by James Turrell. This video links to information about the installation. Later in the day, I returned alone, and the Skyspace was empty. As I looked through the aperture in the roof, shaped a bit like an egg, I fell into a meditative state, not entirely dissimilar to walking a labyrinth. It was amazing: pleasantly warm with an azure sky above. I realized that our minds are similar to this installation. The installation limits (or focuses) our perceptions on a small sliver of the sky.

Although I could hear the occasional cries of seagulls, they only flew over the visible area twice. I started to ponder the different senses and how there might be other experiences that we miss because of our filters as human beings, a common question of people generally and philosophers. An example of this I’ve seen repeatedly is about the different vision perceptions of other animals, or even other humans.  According to this blog post, mantis shrimp are amazing and are being researched in terms of their eyes, which perceive the world quite differently than our eyes.

This applies, too, to how we allow for our fears and anxieties to limit our experiences in other ways.  I’m terrified of heights, but I had an opportunity to hike a trail at Mount Rainier a couple of days ago.  While I was up there, I started to think about how I don’t want my “perception filter” to be limited by fear.

Also, my somewhat spotty meditation practice over the past ten years helped.  I’ve done walking meditations so instead of being afraid as I saw a long trail on the side of a mountain, I decided to focus more more of my attention on my feet and where I was walking one moment at the time. I was essentially limiting my perceptions intentionally, just like looking at the roof in the Skyspace to be able to follow my party. (The views of Mount Rainier were some of the best I’ve ever experienced and definitely worth it.) I know that both psychologists and Buddhist practitioners spend a great deal of time pondering these issues than I ever will, but it was intriguing to see how it applied to my life.  James Turrell’s Skyspaces are all over the US and the world, and I want to visit more of them.

In terms of sociology, I think that this quote from Turrell’s website sums up how this relates:  “Turrell often cites the Parable of Plato’s Cave to introduce the notion that we are living in a reality of our own creation, subject to our human sensory limitations as well as contextual and cultural norms.” The cultural values and norms that we are taught shape what we expect to see and our perceptions.  The ideologies that we are taught contextualize what we are able to see, hear, think, feel, etc.  Although there is room for deviance, rebellion, and change, our formative experiences during socialization create the lens we happen to view the world from.  As always, I wonder how we can shape the cultural values in our societies for people’s wellbeing.

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Filed under Psychology, Sociology

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