A beard of stars: James Turrell’s latest “Skyspace” makes him a populist artist-hero for the British.

How long does it take an artist to become a national treasure, home-grown or otherwise? In Anthony Gormley’s case the process began when he got schoolkids to make endearingly primitive clay figurines for his “Field” series, and concluded with the Angel of the North. This makes him our unofficial sculptor-laureate. It’s a wonder he’s not on the Today programme as often as our slightly condescending poet laureate Andrew Motion. However, the latest candidate for national treasure status is rather more unexpected: the hirsute Arizonan rancher-pilot-artist James Turrell.

No less august a body than the National Art Collections Fund – which these days likes to call itself The Art Fund – has splashed out £800,000 to build a permanent Turrell “Skyspace” in the pastoral setting of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. So excited is the Fund by this – its centenary project – that it is moved to hyperbole. This commission, it states, “is its most significant gift to the nation since the Burghers of Calais by Rodin in 1911.”

I don’t know if Britain had many other Rodins knocking about in 1911, but Turrell, who incidentally would stand a fighting chance in any ZZ Top lookalike contest, is certainly no stranger to these shores. Indeed, his Skyspaces – contemplative rooms which frame the sky, allowing you to sit and, um, look at the sky – have become a bit of a production line. They are all over the world, and they are already in Britain. He did one in Cornwall – the “Elliptic Ecliptic” for the solar eclipse of 1999. A related Turrell project – not real sky, but a light installation – was the centrepiece of the Faith Zone in the Millennium Dome in 2000.

Subsequently he was commissioned by the Kielder Arts Trust to build one high on the Northumbrian moors near the Scottish border. It is in a remote location, requiring what amounts to an act of pilgrimage to get to. Reader, I have made that pilgrimage. When you finally find it, sunk into the landscape at a place called Cat Cairn, you will have yomped along steep forest tracks for miles. I have to report that – despite apparently being the only circular example in the world – it is more than somewhat disappointing. A bit of sky, eh? Would that be the same sky that you have been very much aware of, all the way there?

Of course, Turrell’s point is that it is not just the same bit of sky, or even a different or ever-changing bit of sky. Turrell’s art is about the act of seeing rather than the thing seen. In all his light-and-space-based art, whether in galleries or the great outdoors, we are experiencing our own perceptions. Making a mystical experience out of what is essentially an open skylight is all about removing distractions, taking time out, letting your thoughts fly free – yeah, all that hippy stuff. Here’s the good news: the Art Fund may be a bit late picking up on Turrell, but it has not wasted its money. The new Skyspace at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, which opens on April 28, works for me in a way that the Kielder example does not.

It is hard to say exactly why, since the principle is the same in all cases. But each Skyspace responds to its circumstances in subtly different ways. At the YSP it has commandeered an existing landscape building, the listed 18th century “Deer Shelter”. The landscape, now dotted with Henry Moores and much else, was originally a deer park, and the shelter takes the form of a walled sunken pen backed with a row of deep brick arches built into the hillside behind. What Turrell has done is to convert the deer shelter into the entrance to his Skyspace, thus making it a threshold to another world.

Achieving this was quite some task, involving excavating 2,000 tons of rock and soil, and putting 370 tons of concrete and steel back in. The result is a part-buried chamber 29 feet square and 24 feet high. For all its size, it does not impinge much on the landscape, its height and eight foot square rooftop aperture concealed on the surface by a drystone perimeter wall.

You enter the pen through a rustic gate, pass through an open doorway at the back of the deer shelter, find yourself in a low, narrow vestibule, and then emerge into the light-drenched space.

This not-quite-exact cube has the usual bench seat around the walls, here done rather sumptuously in polished concrete (heated in cold weather) with a tall angled backrest. The walls and ceiling are white, and in its ceiling is the usual sharp-edged opening to the sky. As well as the heavens, you get to witness the sundial effect of the patch of sunlight projected by the aperture, slowly moving across and down the wall as the day progresses. Or of course, you might get an overcast day where nothing much happens except the flickers on your own retina.

It works better here than Kielder because – apart from the coup de theatre of the entrance – it is larger and better proportioned. It had a bigger budget, and Turrell has used it well to make a nobler space. Turrell famously had a Quaker upbringing and explains much of his work in terms of his grandmother’s injunction to “go inside and greet the light”, but this feels somehow priestly, even Egyptian.

You sit there, put your mind into neutral, watch the sky and the scudding clouds, observe the odd bird and bee traverse your line of vision, and then realise that this is not just a light-and-space sculpture. It is also a sound piece. It appears to capture the background noises of the park – birdsong, the roar of wind in the trees, distant voices – which then become the disembodied soundtrack to the vision thing. It captures that sense of clarity and distance you sometimes get at the point of falling asleep. It is vaguely hallucinogenic.

To coincide with the opening, the YSP has extended its existing excellent Turrell show of light works in its spacious new semi-underground galleries nearby. The two immersive experiences complement each other well-nigh perfectly.

So it seems there is life in bearded cowboy Turrell’s Skyspace series yet. Perhaps the way to see them is as cosmic phenomena, satellites of his life’s work, the Roden Crater project in the Arizona desert where he is creating an art synthesising land and sky on a scale comparable to the puzzling earth-marking of ancient civilisations. Seen this way, each Skyspace is not so much an entity in itself as an outlier of the mother project. The Yorkshire one is clearly a more important such satellite than some. My only reservation is that the YSP, with its new galleries, is now getting to be a very popular place and – unlike remote Kielder – this one is rather too easy to get to, very near the entrance. Being in there alone is one thing. Being there with gaggles of shouty kids on a day out from Leeds will be quite another.

So: is this really as significant a gift to the nation as Rodin’s Burghers of Calais was in 1911? Probably not. But it merits the detour. And although it cannot become a long-distance speed-vision icon like Gormley’s Angel, this too manages to straddle the boundary between high and popular art. Ol’ Beardy is well on his way to the British public’s heart.

Text and images © Hugh Pearman. A fuller version of the article first published in The Sunday Times, 23rd April 2006, as “Just a little bit of heaven”.

James Turrell Deer Shelter is open to the public from April 28 at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, admission free: www.ysp.org.uk, tel 01924 832631.
National Art Fund: www.artfund.org.uk
Kielder Skyspace: http://www.kielder.org/art/skysp.htm