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South America Gets Its First Freestanding James Turrell Skyspace

By Mae Hamilton

Nov 15, 2021

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James Turrell considers himself to be a “perceptual artist” who manipulates light to affect viewers’ perception.

Photograph by Tali Kimelman

James Turrell considers himself to be a “perceptual artist” who manipulates light to affect viewers’ perception.

Constructed using local materials, “Ta Khut” is set beachside at the luxury Uruguayan hotel Posada Ayana.

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A new Skyspace by U.S. artist James Turrell is cause for celebration. Ever since he began creating these installations in the 1970s—playing with natural and artificial light, with sunbeams streaming through skylights and walls bathed in ever-changing colors—Skyspaces have popped up in surprising places, including inside the memorial chapel of a Berlin cemetery and in a 600-year-old Buddhist temple turned museum/restaurant/hotel in Beijing. They’re so iconic, even Drake paid homage to Turrell in the 2015 music video for “Hotline Bling.” There are about 100 Skyspaces currently installed around the world, and now, South America is getting its very first stand-alone Skyspace. 

Slated to open to the public on November 20, Turrell’s Ta Khut (“the light” in ancient Egyptian and believed to be the name of a pyramid) is at the boutique hotel Posada Ayana in the sleepy Uruguayan town of José Ignacio, just steps from Mansa Beach. Ta Khut is partially hidden from view behind a grass and dirt embankment that opens up to a curious, temple-like white dome. The structure, made from 30 tons of steel, 300 cubic meters of cement, and 285 square meters of granite, casts a slightly mysterious silhouette on the landscape that wouldn’t feel out of place in an Alexandro Jodorowsky film. During the dome’s construction, Turrell also chose to integrate local materials like red sandstone and black granite. “I enjoy, very much, this idea of bringing together the earth and sky, the physical and ephemeral,” Turrell said in an email interview. 

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Posada Ayana is an eight-bedroom hotel (soon to be 17 rooms) originally designed by architect Alvaro Pérez Azar to be the private residence of a Viennese family of four, the Koflers. But after construction finished, the Koflers decided to convert their home into a hotel, opening its doors in December 2020, and make it the family business. Inspired by the glamour of 1960s Cote d’Azur, Posada Ayana places a heavy emphasis on design and strives to create an environment that feels warm, welcoming, and stylish to its guests. It's a mix of lapacho wood, local concrete, and rock along with the Skyspace, which stands alone near the white, fluffy sands of the beach.

“Ta Khut” was made using Uruguayan granite, which is highly prized for its hardness.

Given the owners’ penchant for the arts, Posada Ayana makes a fitting home for Turrell’s latest Skyspace. But that’s not what attracted him to the property—it was the sky, naturally, and all the warmth and humidity that a tropical climate offers. “I am very interested in the sky in the Southern Hemisphere,” Turrell said.“In José Ignacio, you can see the night sky very well. It’s an interesting situation with the marine environment.” 

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Seeing a Skyspace is totally immersive and, in all honesty, a little psychedelic. As the Skyspace’s internal artificial lights slowly change colors, participants are asked to stare straight at the skylight—the lights make it seem as if the sky itself is changing color. Turrell’s fascination with light is something he said stems directly from his childhood. “Unlike young children who want to become a fireman but then grow out of it, I never grew out of my fascination with light,” Turrell said. “I have always been interested in the way light plays. I’m also very interested in the light not seen with the eyes open—like in dreams . . . I want to see light as we do with our eyes closed where it’s a different kind of world.”

It took Turrell around 18 months to finalize his designs (pretty good time considering his Skyspace at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art took 35 years to complete) and to make sure that his new artwork fit well within its tropical surroundings. Suffice it to say, he’s satisfied with the fruits of his labor. “This piece is one of the fastest completions,” Turrell said. “I am very pleased with how [it was constructed] and it’s one of the most beautifully made.”

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