Searching for Skyspace in the Dunes of Den Haag

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About 10 kilometers outside of The Hague, in a small seaside community called Kijkduin, there are two stone monoliths. One is nestled into an oval-shaped crater, hidden from the road and accessible only via a set of stairs and a tunnel. The other is high on a hill, overlooking both the crater and the North Sea, surrounded by miles of rolling, grassy dunes.

Celestial Vault is the only James Turrell Skyspace in The Netherlands, the product of a collaboration between the Art Centre Stroom in the Hague and the artist, whose large-scale installations dot the globe.

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I’ve long been a fan of Turrell’s The Light Inside, in the basement of the Houston Museum of Fine Arts. In fact, Turrell has three works of art in Houston, with Skyspaces at the Live Oak Friends Meeting House in the Heights and on the Rice University campus. It seems Turrell fever took off in Houston with the completion of the Rice Skyspace, Twilight Epiphany, in 2012, but it was his retrospective at the MFAH in 2013, and especially a lecture by curator Alison de Lima Greene, that really turned me onto Turrell’s obsessions and interests as an artist.*

One of those interests is his life’s work, building the Roden Crater. Much like his need to capture the intangibleness of light, Turrell seems to feel a certain compulsion to harness and mold the earth in the same way the earth has molded itself. It is no irony that Turrell mounted a grand-scale earthen installation in the Netherlands, the birthplace of civil engineering. As the saying goes, God created the earth, but the Dutch made the Netherlands.

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Getting to the Skyspace was no easy feat. It’s one of the lesser-known of Turrell’s works, and a search on Google maps gives you not the address of the installation itself, but the address of the museum that commissioned it. The Stroom’s own website lists only the restaurant across the street (where you can park if you’re driving).

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The morning of our trip we woke up to find gorgeous, fluffy flakes of snow falling outside our hotel windows. We watched the snow fall as we ate our breakfast, thinking we might have to postpone our bike ride. But by 10 am, the sun was out, and we were ready to roll.

It took about half an hour by bike to get to Kijkduin, where we stopped at the seaside park to have a quick look at the ocean. From there is was just a few more minutes to the restaurant situated across the street from that staircase that leads up to the crater.

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The crater itself is 30 meters by 40 meters oval, and much smaller in person than it looks on Google Maps and in photos. In the middle is the monolith, long enough for two people and slightly raised in the center, so that when you lay down you can see the rim of the crater. The effect is that the sky above you appears like a dome, as though you’re lying inside a massive planetarium.

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A couple of hills away is another monolith, a higher one, which gives an overview of the crater, the surrounding dunes and the many trails that weave their way through the area. In the distance, you can see the waves of the North Sea crashing into the beach.

At that early on a Monday morning, we found ourselves mostly alone, save for two women walking their dogs. The sun was white and low on the horizon, and the snow on the ground added to the gleam. Much has been written about the quality of light in Holland, especially in spring, when the sun coaxes the country’s famous flowers from the earth. It was that light that inspired both the Dutch masters of the 17th century and Turrell in the 20th. Most of Turrell’s works are made to be experienced either at sunrise or sunset. I can’t wait to go back to see the Celestial Vault under startlight.

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(*This brings my Skyspace total to five. On a visit in 2014 to San Francisco, we “accidentally” came across a Turrell while visiting the de Young museum — we didn’t know it was there.)

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