One of my most eagerly anticipated exhibitions of this summer has been this: the arrival of one of the giants of American 20th century art at an 18th century English country house. Not an obvious marriage made in heaven, but it nevertheless presented an intriguing prospect.
James Turrell is best known for his light art, delighting in creating three dimensional effects from two dimensional projections. Currently notorious is his work in progress: Roden Crater. Located in Arizona, Turrell is turning this natural volcanic feature into a massive naked-eye observatory designed specifically for the viewing of celestial phenomena.
So what brings this big name Californian artist to rural Norfolk? Certainly his Arizona work suggests an attempt to create his own Stonehenge-style heritage. One could suggest that taking an English pile and adding contemporary light interventions also seeks to create a similar link that merges past and present. Perhaps I’m being rather fanciful but in any case Lord Cholmondeley has been a devout collector for many years and already had a number of works installed at the estate.
One of these belongs to his numerous ‘Skyspaces’ that are scattered around the world. An oak hut has a square hole in the ceiling framing the changing sky and transforms the viewer’s perception of light distance and colour. What is real? Can we trust what we see? Another in a former water tower is a windowless room with a dim rectangular projection that only becomes apparent after allowing your eyes to adapt to the virtual pitch blackness.
Inside the house are some of his smaller and older works but it is the entire building which features the centrepiece of the exhibition. Ten thousand or so coloured LEDs illuminate the whole building in gradually evolving work/show. The white stone staircase on the western façade is a bright green, the portico glows white, colonnaded galleries turn into tunnels of red whilst the rooftop domes glow magenta.
This 45 minute spectacle begins at dusk and can only be seen on Friday and Saturday evenings, so I hardly need to add that this is of course the time to plan your visit. Take advantage of the later closing times – the restaurant will be open for dinner bookings whilst a pop-up café on the west front will also provide drinks and snacks.
Once highly unusual this type of exhibition seems to have become more common in recent years. You may recall that only last Autumn we were raving about the stunning Ai Wei Wei exhibition at Blenheim Palace. That exhibition was a huge success and LightScape is a similar triumph. Another do not miss exhibition, or should I say, experience.
James Turrell’s LightScape runs until 24 October 2015
For further information please visit www.houghtonhall.com