Chambers of Wonder

Renowned artist James Turrell constructs a light-bending installation at Swarovski Crystal Worlds

Photo by Florian Holzherr

The manipulation of light may at first sound like a dumfounded task made only possible by those born into the supernatural. Yet the reality is, James Turrell has perfected it for decades. Recognised world-wide for his installations and holographs, the American artist has long produced light-bending visuals and optical illusions on mass, on site and in situ. Atmospheric and provoking, Turrell’s expansive body of work has therefore garnered reputable status amongst the art world for its momentous depiction of light and how perception can be completely flipped on its axes – from skylight pieces providing a portal into the world above, to projections and constructions offering a new outlook on light and depth.

And now, Turrell’s latest endeavour is an installation of Shadow Space named Umbra, constructed permanently in Chambers of Wonder as part of Swarovski Crystal Worlds. Since opening in 1995, Swarovski Crystal Worlds has welcomed residents including Yayoi Kusama who premiered the infamous Chandelier of Grief, a rotating and immersive fixture composed of Swarovski crystal; or Into Lattice Sun by Lee But, an architectural translation of the utopian landscape. For this latest addition, Turrell was the perfect suitor. Carla Rumler, cultural director of Swarovski and curator of Swarovski Crystal Worlds says how Turrell’s credulous work has “always” been on her mind; “he was on my wish list,” she explains. A “logical” addiction to the site replete with its own iteration of the Seven Wonders of the World, Turrell is the first to avoid the use of crystal entirely. Instead, fragments – or “ingredients”, as Carla puts it – are adorned in such a way that it gives off a similar effect to the glassy composition found in crystals. Whether it’s the contraction of light, the reflection; “Turrell works with spectral colours a lot and in an essential way,” she adds.

Photo by Florian Holzherr

“I am very much taken to how light works in crystal,” says Turrell in an announcement. “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.”

The Turrell and Swarovski pairing is an apt one at least, not only in the attention to detail but also in the likemindedness between both company and artist. “He doesn’t work with everybody,” shares Carla, “we are very honoured that he’s worked with us.” It was a harmonious discussion as to what would be included in the installation, wherein both sides deliberated the medium that would best fit the space and purpose of the artwork. “It turned out that Shadow Space is the perfect one for us,” she adds, taking into consideration the size and audience experience. “We said, ‘what colours would you like to use?’ He said how it was a surprise.” Causing no moment of hesitation or worry – it’s James Turrell, after all – there couldn’t have been a more suited and enjoyable outcome. This is a thought reciprocated from both sides. “He was very happy with the output because most of his forms are made to be temporary,” adds Carla, “so the quality of the room here is so perfect. It’s like approaching an artwork or a picture that will not go away. He was so impressed by the quality of the room because he’s never experienced it so precise.”

Open Sky: Phillip K. Smith III x COS

Port speaks to Californian artist Phillip K. Smith about OPEN SKY, a new installation for the Salone del Mobile in Milan produced in collaboration with COS

In making interactive installations with shiny surfaces that mirror their surroundings, Phillip K. Smith III has returned again and again to the sprawling landscapes of his native California. Raised in Coachella Valley, the desert has been an enduring site of inspiration in which a barren environment becomes two abstract strips of hot orange and blue. By inserting his large-scale reflective forms he distorts the sandy expanse into a series of shimmering impressions that change with every passing hour, and respond to the viewer’s movements. Smith now has a studio in Palm Beach, California and stretches of empty shore are another point of focus, whose installations unfurl and elongate to echo the coastline. 

Uprooted entirely from the climate he has studied for so long and transported to another continent, Smith’s latest project OPEN SKY is a semi-circular structure built into the constricting square courtyard of Milan’s Palazzo Isimbardi. The artwork, the result of a collaboration with London-based fashion brand COS to create their 7th annual installation for the Salone del Mobile design fair this month, contends with the 16th century architecture and marks an exciting new innovation in Smith’s work.

Karin Gustafsson, the creative director at COS, says of selecting Smith to represent the brand: “Phillip’s work is centered around looking to the natural world for subtle shifts in light and colour that inspire new ways of seeing – his works are inspiringly simple and minimal, yet they are majestic and constantly evolving with the world around them. The concepts that his work embodies are also reflective of key tenants of COS’s aesthetic and inspire us to think of our designs in new and interesting ways.”

Smith spoke to Port about the collaboration with COS, the ways visitors interact with his art and how he found working in the urban setting of a courtyard in Milan. 

How did you come to be involved with COS and the project at the Salone del Mobile?

COS reached out directly to me. My work had been on their inspiration boards for a few years and when they were thinking about commissioning an installation in their first ever outdoor space, my work made sense. COS has worked with a terrific group of artists and designers over the past few years, and I am honoured to be part of that lineage, but also to be given the chance to participate in a process that is artist-focused from conception to realisation.

In what ways does OPEN SKY respond to Palazzo Isimbardi in Milan?

I wanted to pull the sky down to the ground, to make the sky physically present. The installation is created in direct response to its location at the Palazzo Isimbardi, using both the framed sky above and the enveloping 16th century Renaissance architecture. I wanted to create an ever-changing sense of discovery of the built and natural environment. I wanted to slow the pace of experience from the moment people enter the palazzo off of the streets of Milan, so that people would be open to the subtle shifts in light and the passage of time expressed through the shifting sky.

How do you see people interacting with OPEN SKY?

As viewers navigate the installation and palazzo, their angle of reflection changes in relation to the architecture creating a dynamically shifting collage of sky and architecture, diagonally laid out across the 14 metre diameter reflective surface. This re-collaging of the surroundings opens one’s eyes to the beauty that is in front of them. The entire experience is a slowing down, from the streets of Milan to walking through the entry archway of the palazzo to walking around the abstract, tactile light and shadow exterior surface of Open Sky. The sense of pace slows and the sounds are quieted. 

Finally, people will pass through the palazzo and out into the garden where there are five freestanding Reflector sculptures that have been sited. These works interact with the sky, garden, and architecture of the interior of the block. I hope that people will use the benches and sit for a while so they can fully appreciate the surrounding beauty and atmosphere.

Many of your recent installations stretch out across beaches and deserts in your native California. How did you find this project compares to your past work?

Milan, certainly, is a new environment for me with its urban reality. When you are out in the middle of the desert, your view can be easily distilled into just to elements: land and sky. However, while all of Milan exists past the perimeters of the building, within the courtyard of the palazzo the experience can still be distilled into just two elements: sky and architecture. 

Standing since the 16th century, Palazzo Isimbardi is at the centre of Milan’s history. In what ways might OPEN SKY allow visitors to view or experience the building in a new light?

 The installation works as a tool for viewing. It is an interactive experience that requires the architecture and sky as materials and the viewer as the activator. While nearly 400 years separates the inception of the palazzo and this installation, there is a seamless, timeless merging of art, architecture, environment, light, perception and viewer.

The Phone Made for Minimalists

Joe Hollier, co-creator of the first phone designed to be used as little as possible, speaks about resisting digital distractions and the benefits of ‘going light’

As far as advertising slogans go, ‘designed to be used as little as possible’ is a far cry from ‘Just Do It’ or ‘I Want My MTV’, and is maybe one of the most unlikely examples in marketing history. Coined by Joe Hollier and Kaiwai Tang, co-creators of the Light Phone, its strength lies in the fact that the majority of us spend a worrying amount of time on our smartphones, and we’re all too aware of it. 

Some even call it an addiction. In fact, recent research claims that US consumers spend an average of five hours per day on their phones. The Light Phone’s USP then, is that it was made to be as simple and rudimentary as possible. Small, sleek and no bigger than a credit card, it is designed to be used as a second phone; a way to log off from the internet while still being contactable. 

Hollier and Tang came together on an app design programme run by Google. For Hollier, a graphic designer, artist and skateboarder, the programme ended up highlighting the greed and cynicism of the tech industry.  

“I realised quite quickly that, on one hand, apps all claim to make our lives better,” he explains. “But on the other hand, what all the founders and investors were talking about was retention: how many hours a day do your users actually use the app. Because the more addicted they become, the more ads you can sell them, the more data you can collect, and the more money you can make. So I saw this disconnect. How can you be claiming to make my life better when you’re really just taking up all of my time?” 

By the time the Light Phone was being tested, they found that first-time users often experience something that they now call ‘going light.’ “When someone ‘goes light’ there’s an initial anxiety, maybe tapping their pockets, maybe feeling like they’re missing something, maybe they’re at a café and can’t resort to looking down at their phones and they start making awkward eye contact with people,” Hollier continues. It sounds like satire, though it’s undoubtedly close to the truth. “But there’s always this moment when you stop caring, you forget about Instagram and you’re able to relax and experience the present.”

Given the Light Phone’s minimal design and limited features, the question remains: why buy a Light Phone when a simple Nokia could do the same job?  

“The design and the form are very important,” Hollier says. “The object of the Light Phone, image-wise, is designed to make the experience as special as possible. It’s hopefully something that you’ll be proud to pull out of your pocket. And then there’s the fact that you can keep the same number.”

Admittedly, there’s no getting away from the irony of using technology to combat technology addiction, but this isn’t the first time disruptors have subverted it in this way. With mindfulness apps and smart jewellery start-ups, the Light Phone seems to be part of a growing independent tech sector that promotes personal well-being. 

“One big thing about the Light Phone is the conversations it allows you to have about technology,” explains Hollier. “Even if someone doesn’t buy the phone, maybe it’s inspired them to question their personal phone use. Our goal was only ever to show how most technology is sponsored by big companies who don’t care about us, who just want our time and money. So the real question that the Light Phone poses is: why? And where do we go from here?”

Find out more about the Light Phone here