Houston: James Turrell’s Skyspace

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During a recent trip to Houston, I decided to make an early-bird dinner reservation so I could get over to the Rice University campus in time for the evening viewing of James Turrell’s Light Epiphany. Open since June, the site-specific “skyspace” was commissioned to mark the university’s centennial. The pyramidal structure has been outfitted with LED lights that Turrell has programmed to change in particular sequences—one just before sunrise, one just after sunset—in accordance with the solar calendar. Seeing as how the sun always sets on time, I didn’t want to be late. 

As I hurried toward the structure (located next to the Shepherd School of Music), my first thought was that it looked like some sort of futuristic hover craft. I handed over the email confirmation I’d printed out (though free, reservations are required for the sunset show) and fell in line with the other visitors. Heading up the white staircase embedded in the structure’s grassy slope, I felt like Roy at the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind as he walked, willingly, up the ramp and into the mother ship.

I took a seat on the poured-concrete benches and peered down on the folks who had gotten there early enough to snag a spot in the structure’s lower level. (Is that Steven Spielberg in the blue shirt, waving to me?) The skyspace can hold 120 people at a time, but only 44 can sit in the lower viewing area.

The rectangular cubes of light that point up toward the white, square ceiling (it’s 72 feet across) soon began to change color, bathing both the ceiling and the 14-by-14-foot aperture that’s cut out of it with increasingly intense hues of orange, pink, blue, and gold.

<span class="drop-cap">C</span>hili and cornbread. Beans and cornbread. Stuffing with cornbread. The dish is in the cast of many menus, but it always gets stuck in the supporting role. No doubt cornbread’s long history (think hardscrabble predecessors like ash cakes) and cornmeal’s ubiquity in the diet of our forebears led some to take it for granted. But now that it’s no longer relegated to being a cheap and simple plate-filler, we’re afforded the luxury of not only enjoying the crumbly stuff but also carping about how it should be prepared. Many recipes call for quarter-cuploads of sugar, but I sit firmly at the campfire with George Bailey, who, writing for the <em>Houston Post </em>in the early twentieth century, declared the addition of sugar to cornbread “an idea born of the devil” and fraught with repercussions, not the least of which included making “men trifling and women frivolous.” In any case, I’d like to celebrate the less controversial adaptations of the classic recipe, in particular the glorious Tex-Mex version, which enlivens the ancient grain with the zesty zip of green chiles, the festive pop of fresh corn, and the salty tang of cheddar cheese. Crowned with a pat of butter and flanked by a cold beer, there’s no reason this humble bread can’t be the lone star of a satisfying Texas meal. <em>Serves 4 to 6 (makes enough to fill an 8-inch cast-iron skillet)</em> <em>2 tablespoons bacon d</em>rippings  (can also use vegetable oil) 1 cup stone-ground coarse yellow cornmeal ¼ cup all-purpose flour 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder <em>1 teaspoon kosher salt</em> 1 egg 1 cup buttermilk ¼ cup fresh corn, cut from the cob (can also use frozen) ¼ cup sweet onion, diced ¼ cup fresh poblano chiles, chopped (can use any type of green chile) 1/2 cup shredded cheddar or longhorn cheese Grease a cast-iron skillet with the bacon drippings, then place in the oven and heat to 450 degrees. Mix the cornmeal, flour, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl. Whisk the egg with the buttermilk, then add to the bowl of dry ingredients. Add the corn, onion, chiles, and cheese and stir to combine (don’t overstir). Remove the skillet from the oven and pour the melted drippings into the batter (there won’t be much). Give the batter a quick stir, then pour it into the skillet. Bake for 20 minutes, until the top is golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Cut into wedges and serve.

As I kept my gaze trained on the open space in the ceiling, my brain did its best to make sense of what my eyes thought they were seeing. It was as if the sky itself was changing colors. The effect reminded me of looking into my grandmother’s makeup mirror and switching between its four different light settings to see how the color of my eyes would change. “It’s clear, of course, that I haven’t changed the color of the sky—only our context of vision,” Turrell told CultureMap Houstonback in May. “In a way, this piece allows us to see ourselves seeing.”

As for Mimi Swartz’s prediction that the skyspace is “destined to become the hottest make-out spot on campus, if not in the whole damn town,” I didn’t see any lip-locking going on during my visit, but the the night was still young when I left.

     

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