As one walks down from the Cheekwood mansion, the top of Blue Pesher, just one of many of James Turrell’s skyspaces, pokes out of the brush. Its plain concrete construction, barely visible through the wild brush, is so utilitarian and entirely unlike what one expects when viewing art that it is easy and likely very common to mistake it for a grounds maintenance building and, as such, off limits. Indeed, even upon approaching the entrance, located further into the woods along the Carell Woodland Sculpture Trail, it is difficult to ascertain the structure’s purpose: the identification placard, mounted so low it is almost unnoticeable, is some twenty or thirty feet from the entrance. Built into a hill like a bunker or cave, the entrance itself consists of a concrete threshold upon which are mounted with eight rusted hinges two gray steel doors resembling cheese plates. The path leading to the entrance is barely discernible, as though it receives far less foot traffic than the rest of the trail. This, and the silence of the woods, further enhances its feeling of being off limits, forbidden.
Passing through the steel doors, one enters a concrete hallway, about thirty feet long. The silence gives way to your own footsteps echoing down and back toward you along this umbilicus. Light from the main chamber bounces tremendously, filling the umbilicus with a soft warm glow.
The chamber itself is a taller concrete cylinder that appears spherical due to the plaster shell bench that circles the bottom half, creating a tan bottom that steps away from the white upper half, which slants inward slightly. Two irises dominate the room'”one in the center of the floor, filled with black sand, and one in the center of the ceiling, opening to blue sky. The geometry of the chamber is disorienting; looking up, the ceiling around the beveled iris seems to tilt and the sky at once pours in and flows out while the walls close in or pull away due to the stepped construction and two-tone color scheme. The only grounding force is the iris of black sand, instantly recalling the raked Shirakawa sand of Japanese gardens.
Looking into this sand, noticing the leaves and debris and especially the footprints left by previous visitors, one is confronted with a variety of ideas: not only the contemplative Zen-like aspect of Japanese gardens, but also the dialectic of the structure’s dual focal points. While the upper iris directs attention to matters of time, the lower grounding iris directs one’s attention inward. Because of the strength of the lower iris and the wonder of the upper iris, one cannot focus completely on either; each vies for your concern, Yin and Yang. Each also presents a common link of inviolability: the upper by its framed subject'”the relative permanence of sky, the heavens'”and the lower by its adaptability to dominating forces. Despite the changes that the black sand endures, its form and function are so fundamental that these changes have little effect on its presence. The characteristics presented by both irises are part of being human.
With the contemplative nature of this piece it is difficult to imagine it being collaborative; however the human element presents some unique opportunities. The footprints in the sand alone seem a valid human response to both the sand’s resistance to change and the structure’s air of being nearly sacrosanct. Human beings, by virtue of their wanting to leave their mark, are a largely destructive force, and so the footprints in the sand become not only a symbol of those who came before us but a commentary on human nature.
I found it interesting that when others entered the chamber and found me inside, they always appeared as though they had interrupted something; each cast a cursory glance around the chamber, then turned and left as though Blue Pesher were a private, solitary experience not to be disturbed. Perhaps human beings are not such a destructive force. Perhaps Blue Pesher is more sacrosanct than I thought. Or perhaps those visitors left with the wish that I had not been there, with the thought that I had disturbed them.
Along these human elements is an unexpected branch of collaborative possibility in the fact that if one were to create a pattern in the sand, or arrange the existing natural debris, or smooth away the footprints, it is possible that the next visitor could mistake the new configuration for part of the piece. As there are two pulls for attention focused in the irises, so too are there opposing desires to interact with the sand (and future visitors) and to let it be.
This collaborative aspect elucidates the structure’s title. Pesher, according to Cheekwood’s website, is a Hebrew word meaning “to comment upon.” More accurately, pesher is an inline interpretation of a piece of text slanted toward current society and culture. What Turrell has done, however, is to place the structure within a protected piece of nature, thereby removing all but the vestiges of society and culture that one brings into it. Chiefly, there is only the human existence, and the earth.
Looking up through the beveled iris, one is presented with a circular frame of blue sky, if weather permits. The piece is obviously meant to be viewed at multiple times of day, at multiple times of year. Staring up at this frame of sky, there is a strong sense of time having stopped (I can easily imagine being in the chamber during a rain storm, and how wildly my interpretation of Blue Pesher would change based on weather alone). However, the shape of the chamber–while not echoing profusely–amplifies every sound made both inside and outside the chamber. As you sit inside, you become acutely aware of life. Such an acute awareness of life brings with it an equally acute awareness of the passage of time. Sit in Blue Pesher long enough and you notice the changing light levels as clouds pass by the sun, and as the day nears completion. One also notices just how quickly time passes in the broken circle of sunlight projected through the upper iris on the stepped wall of the chamber. If you watch it closely, you can see it track slowly across the wall. This firmly reinforces the seeming deathlessness of time itself when compared with our relatively fleeting lifespan.
Within this circle of sunlight, at the right time of day and year, is a shadow play of wild brush waving in the breeze outside. Because of the large size of the iris and the distance to the brush, the shadows cast along the chamber wall are not sharp but somewhat fuzzy. They remain stationary while the light tracks across them and finally leaves them.
For all its calming contemplativeness, Blue Pesher is also disturbing, awakening a primitive fear. Watching the fuzzy shadows of things, one recalls Plato’s allegory of the cave. And when you exit the cave of Blue Pesher, as you eventually must, the world appears before your eyes in sharper contrast than when you left it.