Surrender to the light

James Turrell’s incredible Swarovski commission uses light to mess with your mind, body and soul
By Alex James Taylor | Art | 16 April 2022

In Swarovski’s hometown of Innsbruck, Austria, there’s a hill guarded by a bejewelled giant’s head. Welcome to Swarovski Kristallwelten, an immersive wonderland containing unique chambers of art and curiosities curated by some of the world’s most eminent artists. Here, a white Alexander McQueen Christmas tree spins softly to a Bjork soundtrack as real snow falls inside – like the most magical snowglobe ever – one of Yayoi Kusama’s spectacular infinity mirror rooms reflects thousands of dancing Swarovski chandeliers, and a geodesic crystal dome consisting of 595 mirrors transports you inside one of Swarovski’s iconic gems.

Now, Swarovski’s Kristallwelten adds another chamber to its resplendent repertoire: a commission by US artist James Turrell titled Umbra. Celebrated for his singular manipulation of light and space, this profound artwork exemplifies Turrell’s practice.

Fundamentally, it is a room bookended by two soft light sources – a rectangle in front, and another framing the entrance – but once inside, light floods your vision and removes all dimensions; replacing corners and edges with a mist-like illumination you can almost bathe in. Inspired by the soft glows emitted by a lunar eclipse, the work gradually progresses through spectral hues, each creating a unique atmosphere that both saturates and obliterates the viewer’s senses. Surrender to the work and the more you look, the more you see; an important message in today’s ever-accelerating culture.

“I am very much taken to how light works in crystal,” says Turrell of working with Swarovski. “Umbra is about the light that is in the soft shadow. In a lunar eclipse, you have the soft light as opposed to the very strong light that you saw reflected off the moon. This is a kind of light that is very soft and filling that I love. If you are looking at this piece, it is not about the light that surrounds the edge, it is the large expanse or panorama of this very soft light that actually comes from the reflection in the room.”

A match made in light, Turrell has long been on the wish list of Carla Rumler, Cultural Director Swarovski and Curator Swarovski Crystal Worlds, who here tells us about her personal experience with the artist’s work and how Umbra reflects the magic of Swarovski’s own craft.

On the first time she saw one of James Turrell’s artworks:
“I vividly remember the first time I saw one of James Turrell’s artworks, it was at Palazzo Fortuny in Venice, in 2007. Especially, I remember how it made me feel, I was immediately moved. It was a very immersive experience that reverberated. James Turrell’s artworks have a long-lasting effect, even fifteen years later I vividly remember this moment.”

On the ideas and discussion behind Umbra:
“To talk to James Turrell about light is very fruitful, with his exhaustive knowledge of the human perception of light. He works with spectral colours and has studied the way light flows through crystal for a long time. In his concept for the Chamber of Wonder, we knew he would make a room where people not only see light, but feel light. He had complete artistic freedom, and has realised a masterpiece with Umbra.”

“We knew he would make a room where people not only see light, but feel light.”

On the importance of taking your time with Umbra, especially in a world where art is shared so quickly and easily:
“Beyond all the digital experiences, it remains essential to see art in real life. To take the time out of your day to go to a museum or gallery, to slow down your mind and take in a different perspective. I firmly believe that if we open ourselves up to the experience, art shapes our perception – we feel deeper, sharper and more alive.”

On the relationship between Umbra and Swarovski:
“First and foremost, light breathes life into crystal and ignites its magic. So to have a Chamber of Wonder that celebrates light in its purest form, by the master of light himself, is an absolute honour. Swarovski crystal, just like the experience at Swarovski Kristallwelten, is meticulously crafted. We see James Turrell adopting innovations and new techniques, never for the sake of it, but to enhance the magic and mystery of his installations. I think this is important, through all innovation, the mystery shall remain.”

Find more information on Swarovski Kristallwelten and Umbra here.

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