Art: The Celestial Obsession of James Turrell

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, April 1995

Art: The Celestial Obsession of James Turrell

With vision, chisels, and bulldozers, a sculptor makes a megastatement
By Tim Vanderpool

From afar, James Turrell's big dream looks like your average volcanic heap. A massive brown pile that rises over 700 feet from a high-desert plain northeast of Flagstaff, Arizona, Roden Crater is topped by a natural, 400-yard-long oval bowl fringed with generic scrub. Use a little imagination, though, and you can almost see what Turrell has in mind as he and a six-man crew resume sculpting rock this spring, pressing ahead with a five-year push to complete a $10 million art installation known as the Roden Crater Project.

"What I'm doing is bringing art into the existing environment," says Turrell, a voluble 51-year-old, as he scrabbles through blueprints in his Flagstaff studio. "This is like mixing a fine wine--creating stage settings to enhance events coming in from millions of miles away."

An internationally renowned light-and-space artist, Turrell has been overseeing general prep work for years--like using earth-moving equipment to shape the crater's walls into a uniformly high, geometrically true parabola. Now, full funding in hand, he's concentrating on the detail work of what he calls his "celestial theater," a postmodern Stonehenge made up of luminescent chambers carved into the rock, serpentine tunnels, moonlit crannies, and subterranean pools whose appearance will change for the viewer/hiker depending on the position of celestial bodies.

It's an odd concept, making what may be the world's largest artsy statement in this badland of Skoal-leaching ranchers, and Turrell has endured plenty of wisecracks from dubious locals. Still, these days no one is doubting his ability to get things done. Since completing his graduate work at Claremont College in the early seventies, the California native has spent a career tweaking perceptions. In one past project, for example, he transformed the Kilfane Gardens in Ireland into a "galactic observatory." Turrell is best known for using light to create indoor illusions. At a 1980 installation at the Whitney Museum in New York, a woman leaned against a "wall" of light that Turrell had made, fell, and sued the museum for her injuries.

Turrell first saw Roden Crater in 1974, when he spent seven months flying a small plane around the West on a Guggenheim fellowship, searching for a suitable mountain in which to carve out his idea. Roden Crater was the first choice, and he immediately set about trying to convince its then-owner, a reluctant rancher named Robert Chambers, to sell. Three years and many bar tabs later, Chambers finally surrendered the volcano for $100,000. Turrell then started financing his fantasy, seeking grants and donations through his nonprofit outfit, the Skystone Foundation.

Turrell says his aim is to release viewers from the "mindset of bottom dwellers." By borrowing ideas from ancient astronomical monuments, he's planning dozens of viewing stations inside and outside the crater. For example, a quartet of chambers in Roden's northeast summit will aim in four directions, each highlighting specific movements by the sun, moon, and stars. Another room will open widely to the sky, intercepting the sun at high noon and tracking the planets with astronomical instruments and a celestial map mounted to a black terrazzo floor. These and other rooms will be sculpted out of the rock with pinpoint precision and connected by a labyrinth of cement-carpeted tunnels.

"You'll see a moon event in one spot, then stroll several hundred feet up the tunnel to see the same event more powerfully," Turrell says. Outside, viewers will see an effect made possible by the reshaping of Roden Crater. At night, the sky overhead will look like a perfectly proportioned, star-flecked bubble, a perception Turrell calls "celestial vaulting."

Turrell plans to allow eight visitors to tour the site daily, and he's determined to be open for business by the year 2000. "This," he says with a smile, "will be a better way to ring in the millennium than watching a ball drop in Times Square."

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