The Beauty of Shadows

emily singer
May 6, 2014 10:16PM

In 1998, Turrell created a guesthouse for the first Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial in Niigata prefecture, Japan. The structure, called House of Light, was inspired by Zen Buddhist architectural traditions, the Niigata mountainscape, and most notably, Junichiro Tanizaki’s 1933 essay, “In Praise of Shadows.” Tanizaki’s essay is centered on Japanese architecture’s strategic focusing of light to create artful shadows. Tanizaki does not interpret shadows as the opposite of light, but rather a beautiful and sensuous product of the manipulation of light—a different type of illumination.

Turrell has said that the House of Light uses traditional Japanese architectural idioms such as shoji (paper sliding doors) and tokonoma (alcoves) to create “the beauty of shadows.” The interior walls of the House of Light are finished with sand to allow “the delicate glow of fading rays [to cling] to the surface of a dusky wall,” as described by Tanizaki, as the faceted grains of sand appear to absorb the light and integrate it within the wall itself, instilling both light and shadow with a near-tangible physicality.

The architectural element that Tanizaki reveres most, however, is the alcove. It is in the alcove that shadows gather, producing an almost spiritual effect in which, according to Tanizaki, “we are overcome with the feeling that in this small corner of the atmosphere there reigns complete and utter silence; that here in the darkness immutable tranquility holds sway.” Tanizaki cites “the magic of shadows” as the reason that the alcove and traditional Japanese architecture are so highly revered, for the structures turn shadows and the spaces on which they fall into sites worthy of contemplation due to their contrast more directly illuminated areas.

Turrell’s Space Division Constructions emulate Japanese alcoves and expand upon the emphasis Tanizaki places on shadows. Illumination from light bulbs facing walls adjacent to an alcove reflects off of the surface of the wall and becomes trapped inside the void. The light held within the aperture becomes colored in accordance with the reflective properties of light and the particular light bulbs used. The alcove appears red in the case of Kayenta (2011), or lime green in Moab (2001), or slate in Iltar (1976). The seamless construction of the aperture and the uniformity of the reflected light makes the colored niche appear as a flat plane, as if the color is merely projected or painted on the wall. Turrell’s Space Division Constructions concentrate reflected light into alcoves and convert the entrancing properties of light into works of art.

Almost instinctively, viewers tend to meditate on the colored plane, the properties of light, the ways in which a space with depth can appear flat, and how colorless, immaterial light takes on a vibrant, physical presence in the aperture of a Space Division Construction. The apparent physicality of the colored light and the fact that it exists exclusively in the confines of the alcove is aligned with Tanizaki’s veneration of shadows in Japanese architecture. Japanese alcoves, as with Turrell’s Space Division Constructions, create an atmosphere ruled by silence and immutable, undeniable tranquility.

emily singer