Today, light calls up the creative muse. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Two recent experiences, both
about light: one was a great light and fireworks
show over downtown Houston. For half an hour,
lasers, fireworks and searchlights lit up our
skyscrapers. It was the largest such display North
America had ever seen. A million people watched
from parks surrounding the center of town. Hundreds
of thousands went in among the buildings to be in
the middle of it.
If I'd been told I was seeing outtakes from the
movie Independence Day, I'd have
believed it. The whole city seemed to rise into the
sky on tongues of flame. Afterward, when onlookers
talked to reporters, their words were flat. No one
could put the experience into words. People in the
streets and city officials alike only stood with
eyes glazed muttering clichés -- "Wow!"
"Truly spectacular!" The only articulate response
came from a teenager who ran off several lines of
impromptu rap about the show.
The other experience was quite different. The night
before, I'd met modern artist James Turrell at a
fundraiser. We'd talked about his art, which also
depends on manipulating light. That evening had a
very different texture but dealt with the same
Turrell is best known for his Roden Crater project.
He's been turning a volcanic cone near Flagstaff,
Arizona, into a special place where you can view
the changing sky. Turrell does that in many ways.
He also creates interior spaces with roofs that
open into the sky and catch its variable light.
This gathering took place in a home that included a
Turrell light-sculpture. A highly collimated light
shines a rectangular beam from one upper corner of
a room and strikes the opposite walls where they
join at ninety degrees. As you gaze at the pool of
light, your mind turns it into a large
three-dimensional cube standing out from the corner
of the room. It works because Turrell has arranged
for you and the light source to form vanishing
points of a two-point perspective. You don't know
that in your head. Instead, you feel it in the pit
of your stomach.
All of Turrell's art calls upon our inner eye to
see what it missed at first. He was quite clear on
that point. We viewers are ultimately the real
creative artists. Turrell provides the light -- we
complete the picture.
So I'd had two adventures with light. One was pure
pop culture. The other was cerebral --
intellectual. Both helped me see what art is. Both
were abstract. Both showed how art leads the mind,
how it rises out of unwashed commonplace
experience, and how it exposes what we first don't
even know is there. Earth really is a spaceship.
The changing sky really does illuminate beauty that
we miss until our senses see it anew. And our own
mind is the engine that completes the work -- that
any artist begins.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds