On a bright autumn morning, a golden eagle rides a thermal
in the cup of sky above Roden Crater. The dark raptor floats on the air,
primary feathers pointing like long black fingers from each sweeping wing.
Then the bird glides away over the craters red cinder rim.
In its brief flight, the eagle has painted itself onto the canvas of James
Turrell 65, who is turning an extinct Arizona volcano and the sky
above it into perhaps the worlds most ambitious work of contemporary
learning a lot as I go, laughs Turrell, 59. He began the Roden Crater
project as a young man with red-brown hair. Now, three decades after he
began flying a small plane around the western United States in search
of a malleable bowl of earth, his beard is gray and white.
His daughter was born, grew up and became a physician while he worked
on the crater. And during that time, he also built a legacy as an artist
who engages viewers by way of perceptions of light and space.
Roden Crater, meanwhile, is still at least five years from a public opening,
and funding remains a serious concern. Turrell says that despite having
had irregular access to the needed resources, he has not had to compromise.
In some ways, its turning out better than I first had intended.
In other ways, its just as I thought it would be, he says.
There have been moments of desperation about things, times when
youre not sure youre going forward. But the course continues.
When Roden Crater does open, and if the northeastern Arizona range land
around it can be protected, many, if not all, of its visitors will be
The views from the craters rimof the Painted Desert, Arizonas
highest peaks, the Little Colorado Rivers Grand Falls, and vast
swaths of grassland once roamed by bisonrival the vistas that draw
millions of visitors to the nations national parks.
Turrell has moved cinder from high to low spots in the craters small
bowl, making it more uniform. This accentuates a perceptual phenomenon
in which the sky can appear to be a dome. Four concrete plinths set like
compass points in the center of the bowl allow viewers to lie down, look
up and experience the dome effect, known as celestial vaulting.
Under the volcano, the artist is building interconnected tunnels and chambers
that direct a viewers attention toward perceptions of light, color,
space and time.
The interior spaces, keyed in varying ways to the sky and celestial events,
are being constructed with attention to auditory qualities as well. Sounds
echo in the unseen distance. A light-catching cistern is to be linked
to radiotelescopic equipment aimed at the sky, so viewers who wish can
immerse themselves and hear and feel electromagnetic waves emitted by
the sun, moon and stars, or by distant quasars that may be the oldest
observable objects in the universe.
art has always encouraged introspection and recognized the viewers
interaction with the work. I think about artists as exploring the
content and the aesthetics of thought, but also of sending you back to
your own exploration of this territory, he says.
At Roden Crater, befitting its monumental scale, there is no shortage
of things to think about. The project involves astronomy, geology, archaeology,
anthropology, ecology, engineering, history, even the business of ranching.
Turrell has been assisted along the way by experts in these fields, among
them Edwin C. Krupp 66, director of the Griffith Observatory in
We had a number of mutual friends and a network of contacts that
persisted after we left Pomona, says Krupp. Jim was aware
that I had some knowledge of prehistoric astronomy and indicated that
he wanted to nose around regarding things that were on his mind, so we
talked about that.
At one point he went to Britain, and I remember that the Old Sarum
Iron Age hill fort really attracted his interest because its essentially
a crater. And I remember Jim talking afterward about the things that light
did in the sky as a result of the visual effect created by this elevated
bowlthe gradations of light and its changing qualities, things that
for most of us are very visible and yet unnoticed. Not that theyre
hard to see, but most of us dont ever bother looking.
Jim bothers to look.
late afternoon in a dim chamber beneath the eastern flank of the volcano,
a circle of light the size of a dessert plate slowly traces a path across
the wall. The beam is too diffuse to warm a hand. In a few minutes, the
disks top and bottom melt away and it narrows to a pencil-like shape.
Finally, with a strange, brief shudder, the sliver of light disappears.
From the chamber an 874-foot tunnel angles up through the volcano toward
an opening to the sky. As it is approached, the portal grows, changes
shape and gains color. From one point in the tunnel it resembles a giant,
translucent robins egg, lit from within.
A bronze stairway rises steeply to the elliptical opening high above.
The stairs taper narrowly near the top, with no railings. At the crest
there is an explosion of light from the westering sun. To stumble, blinking
in the white light, out into the craters bowl, pulse and respiration
elevated, is to experience a vivid sensation, like rebirth.
At times the only difference between hallucination and reality is
consensus, says Turrell. How we respond to light and space,
the feeling and sense of space, and how reality is put into questionthese
sorts of things, and the emotions attached to them, are not much talked
about, but I think are worth exploring.
is sometimes depicted as patriarch of a 156-square-mile ranch, but the
image and reality are different. Although Turrell and the projects
nonprofit Skystone Foundation own most of the crater itself, the state
also owns a portion, and has granted the artist a 99-year lease. The outlying
land is like a checkerboard, with a variety of owners.
Turrell does hold grazing rights to a 156-square-mile area around the
crater. Those rights provide leverage over other uses of the land. The
history of overgrazing in the West is a significant concern to Turrell
and his supporters. They hope to show that grazing can be accomplished
in an environmentally sustainable way.
People need to understand that ranching is the only effective way
for James to protect the land, says Michael Bond, Turrells
assistant. We are trying to avoid a situation in which a theme park
or hotel or shooting range is built nearby.
Publicity about the project has presented a dilemma. Visiting writers
have concluded that one of the worlds great works is in the making.
Their reports have made it clear that the crater project is not just another
desert visionarys improbable dream. Turrell already has been described
as the artist of the century. But the result, Turrell says,
has been a fueling of land speculation, rather than a mobilization of
support that could help safeguard the ecologically sensitive grassland.
At night, except for distant lights on the south horizon, the land appears
dark from the crater rim. The view evokes the primordial West. But there
is no guarantee that what Turrell calls the viewshed around
the crater can be protected.
What will ultimately happen to the land is a big concern,
The Roden Crater project, which entails moving earth, digging tunnels
and pouring concrete in a remote location, has cost about $9.5 million
so far. Most of the money has come from the Lannan Foundation, based in
Santa Fe, New Mexico. The foundation says that it recognizes the
profound and often unquantifiable value of the creative process and is
willing to take risks and make substantial investments in ambitious and
If James Turrell is the soul of the Roden Crater Project, the Lannan
Foundation is its heart, Michael Bond says.
It is estimated that the crater project, about one-third complete, will
require $12 million to $15 million to finish. In addition, an endowment
will be needed for maintenance. Two other key supporters have been the
Dia Art Foundation of New York, now known as the Dia Center for the Arts,
and a well-known collector and patron of contemporary art, Giuseppe Panza
di Biumo of Italy. Dia will help manage the site when it opens.
The projects cost has raised eyebrows, although it pales in the
context of an art market in which a single Peter Paul Rubens painting,
The Massacre of the Innocents, recently fetched $76.7 million
from a private collector.
Turrell is concerned about the state of arts funding in our society. This
is a period where weve never been richer, never had greater individual
worth, and yet we are continually removing funding from the arts,
he says. I thought we were making a culture here. I am trying to
help make a culture.
One of the next tasks at the crater will be the installation of a massive
marble slab in a chamber under the volcano. It is believed that the monolith,
13 feet wide and 15.5 feet tall, will be the largest single piece of marble
ever quarried in the United States, and perhaps the world.
Every 18.61 years, when the moon reaches its most southerly orbital declination,
it will cast a beam of light through a precisely aligned tunnel, projecting,
as a huge camera obscura, an 8-foot-diameter lunar image on the marble
monolith for about two minutes. The first such moonstrike will be in spring
2006; the next in 2024.
who have read or heard about the project have surmised that Turrell is
an ecological plunderer. There is irony in such criticism, considering
Turrells artistic interest in perception and reality, and personal
interest in preservation.
The disturbance to the mountainous volcano is on the order of work done
to accommodate visitors at a state or national park, with the exception
that most of the structures at the crater are underground. Disturbed earth
is to be replanted with native vegetation when construction ends.
The five-room, partly buried South Lodge, the most visible structure outside
the cone, is designed to be aesthetically and environmentally unobtrusive.
Each sunrise fills the museum-like lodges window wall with light
and color. Whatever impressions visitors will gain from the completed
Roden Crater project, a sense of environmental despoliation may be the
The surrounding land, much of it not under Turrells protection,
is another story. One of the volcanic cones nearest to Roden is gradually
being dismantled, the cinder used in construction, and that could have
been Rodens fate as well.
Art may be its saving grace for generations to come. I think it
will last longer than our society, Turrell says of the installation
at the crater.
are expected to be limited to 14 a day when the crater opens. Eight of
them will be able to stay overnight: Some of the most striking effects
occur around sunset and in twilight, at night, and just before and during
the break of dawn.
No one is sure what the demand will be. If necessary, a waiting list or
lottery is envisioned. One day a week, visitation will be restricted to
The Roden Crater experience is so directed toward the individual viewers
perceptions and thoughts that in spite of the volcanos enormity,
two people can seem a crowd there.
The sense of being alone in the vastnesscare has to be taken
about that, says Turrell. Yes, visitation will be limited,
but the work is not elite in the sense that collected artwork often is.
Rather than being elite, the intent is to be protective of the experience.
grew up in Pasadena, the son of Quakers. He has said that he once was
a Quaker, then he wasnt, and now he is again.
Theres a very pure, spare quality about his work that does
seem consistent with a Quaker background, says Marjorie Harth, director
of the Pomona College Museum of Art and professor of art history.
The young Turrell, who had been a conscientious objector, counseled others
to avoid the military draft during the Vietnam War. He was arrested, convicted
and spent time in solitary confinement. Everything I was accused
of I had done and more, he says. I kind of stewed in my own
self-righteousness. I love those bumper stickers that say Question
Authority, but you know, authoritys going to answer. And self-righteousness
does not carry the day. All of that has to do with my own spiritual journey,
which has had its ups and downs, to say the least.
So did his time at Pomona. At one point, he says, he was asked to live
off campus. His interests were varied and his eclectic course selections
were shaped into a major in perceptual psychology. He rattles off the
names of the many professors, administrators and peers he says influenced
his undergraduate education. I value greatly my time there,
he says of the College. That kind of education is tailored to people,
and was at that time and I think today very responsible to the individual
and to each student, and Im grateful for that.
Turrell will speak Feb. 22 at Pomona at the invitation of Arden Reed and
Paul Saint-Amour, faculty members in English. They are planning a gathering
called See Here: A Colloquium on Attention and the Arts, Feb.
21 to 23.
One of his most memorable experiences at Pomona, Turrell says, was a trip
to see the Watts Towers, built over many years by folk artist Simon Rodia
in Los Angeles. I love those kinds of quirky statements by individuals,
he says. In a way, its where I was directed in terms of where
I chose to live and how I wanted to go about this life in art.
is a misconception, Turrell says, that the Roden Crater project is his
lifes work. It is more a culmination. As Harth says, Roden
Crater is a much larger, much more complicated version of the kinds of
work he has been doing on a smaller scale for years. It is extraordinary
to have had a concept 30 years ago that still intrigues people.
Why it intrigues people cannot be his concern as an artist, Turrell says.
Some would like to know what it is that I want people to feel or
experience, he says. Its not that I dont care
what people think or feel or see. I certainly am in every way trying to
deal with those issues. But thats a world for you to explore, and
I would hope that you would find it interesting and find it something
that could perhaps be a bit changing. Rather than try to satisfy your
sense of taste, I think most artists would be happier to challenge it,
and perhaps to move it from one place to another.
Krupp, the Griffith Observatory director, is convinced Turrells
Roden Crater project will succeed at that, spectacularly. I think
that he is very focused on precipitating an experience in people that
is very profound, Krupp says. If you visit an ancient site
with astronomical features, there is a sense of wonder and a feeling of
excitement and enthusiasm about being in the right place at the right
time, and it is a kind of process of rediscovery. But I think Jim is going
beyond that sense. Jim seems to be after something that is much deeper,
more complex and richer than we are used to experiencing. I think he wishes
to impart a different sense of alertness to what goes on around us, who
we are, and how we fit into things.
I think he is going to be regarded as one of the most extraordinary
visionaries of this era.
Michael Balchunas is a freelance
writer and journalist living in Claremont.