Week 8 / Turrell’s Crater / Stephany Howard




In 2011, after 30 years of gradual progress, James Turrell’s Roden Crater project should finally be open to the public. I cannot help taking this chance to discuss James Turrell’s Roden Crater project, as this artist’s work relates deeply to art, science, technology, and space (in many senses of the word). 




What is the Roden Crater project?  In 1979 artist James Turrell purchased a 400,000 year-old extinct volcano crater outside Flagstaff, Arizona.  The Crater is 3km wide.  For 30 years he has been working to turn this natural crater into a massive, naked eye observatory of celestial phenomena.





The artist has been transforming the crater itself, building spaces in which viewers can enter and view the cosmos from inside the crater.  Turrell says he wants viewers to “feel [light] physically almost as we taste things.”  He envisions using the observatory at the Roden Crater to bring together starlight from outside the planetary system, gather that “old light” and bring it to a place where we can “physically feel that old light.” He has created elliptical sky spaces in the observatory up through which viewers can peer into the cosmos.  These elliptical holes in the ceiling “take you up into the sky and the certainly the events from the sky come through them down into the crater.”  Viewing outer space through an elliptical window in the ceiling shifts the context through which we might view that space, it changes our relationship to the space of space and our place within it.




One person describes the aspirations of the observatory:


“It will be your perceptions and interactions with the space and the ever-changing nature of light created by the light of the sun, moon, stars and other celestial events that will drive the art. Much like other civilizations throughout history that have built large structures that embody knowledge… scientific, cultural and spiritual, so will the Roden Crater project.”


Turrell is deeply fascinated with light and how we humans come to light—how do we perceive different kinds of light?  What feelings does light produce in us as it changes?  How does it shape our perception of the world and our human condition in a greater context? 



Turrell brings our attention to the qualities of light, space, and our processes of perception by manipulating space.  His other artworks (I would argue much like scientific experiments) seek to control a situation by reducing variables.  For example, he seeks to control our perception of light by enclosing viewers in a determinant space, making the light itself the main variable—at least it seems this way to me—and thus he brings our attention to how we perceive light itself.  He sometimes uses light itself to create the space—by producing with colored light an illusion of mass, of walls, of hallways where in actuality there exists only emptiness.






The particular shape of the Roden Crater produces another unique experience of perception.  The shape of the space is such that when a viewer looks up at the sky, she has not the sense that the stars are moving (as we often do when we look up into the sky), but that she is located on a planet that is spinning.  The experience has the power to shift a human’s perception of their place in the space of the universe—we are tiny beings on a rock that is spinning, not omniscient voyeurs of a film scrolling across a screen that it is the sky.  We are surrounded by mystery, spinning around inside of a vast expanse of the unknown.  Turrell has a unique power to use perception (of light and space) to alter the anthropocentric lens through which we view our space and outer space.





Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.