James Turrell

Dorotheenstädtischer Friedhof cemetery, Berlin.

August 2016
Light has always been used in religious buildings to represent the divine, a way to heighten the emotions and connect the believer to the otherworldly. For the renovation of its mourning chapel, a Berlin cemetery has sought the same principle in contemporary art, calling on an artist who more than any other uses light as his artistic medium: James Turrell.
Born in Los Angeles in 1943, Turrell has been working with light, space, and human perception for over 50 years. “My work is more about your seeing than it is about my seeing, even though it’s a product of my seeing”, says Turrell. “I’m also interested in the sense of presence in space; that is, space where you feel a presence, almost an entity – that physical feeling and power that space can give.”
The chapel in the Dorotheenstädtischer Friedhof cemetery was built at the end of the 1920s, modified during the BRD period, and finally refurbished in 2015 by Berlin studio Nedelykov Moreira Architekten. Turrell has increased the natural light in the room by enlarging the windows and installing two skylights above the altar. In addition, the brick pediment has been replaced by opaque glass, which filters the light to such an extent that it creates a shadow-less environment. Into this composition, Turrell inserted 122 metres of energy-efficient LED lights that continuously change colour, challenging the viewer’s perception. The interior – with floors of Bulgarian sandstone and Brazilian slate, and heated oak benches – was kept minimal. There are no paintings or frescoes to look at; you can only see yourself seeing. It is purely an experience of light.
“In every funereal setting, people deal with the concept of the resurrection”, assures Christhardt-Georg Neubert, art commissioner at the Evangelical Church in Berlin. “For this project, the question was: who can represent this central aspect of Christian belief – the expression of the resurrection – without images on the walls and with light as a ‘body’?” He has found an unconventional and very successful answer.