Installation artist and MacArthur Fellowship recipient James Turrell has spent nearly half a century pioneering the use of light as a medium. Trained in perceptual psychology and fascinated with illumination, he has completed numerous works that that explore the mixing of interior and exterior space combined with color, light, and the passage of time. His famous Skyspaces, which create an open aperture to the sky, are located in some of the world's most culturally and environmentally significant places and investigate how color affects the human experience. In 1974, Turrell began a project at Roden Crater, an extinct volcano in northern Arizona. While not yet open to the public, he has continued to work on cutting a series of chambers, tunnels, and apertures into the formation.
“I am making spaces that will engage celestial events,” Turrell explains of his work. He sees his efforts at Roden Crater as belonging to a tradition that spans the breadth of human history; one that creates above ground observatories to discover the mysteries of the heavens. These sites include Maes Howe in Scotland, Abu Simbal in Egypt, and the “handmade” volcanoes in Herodium near Jerusalem and Old Sarum in England. Throughout the development of Roden Crater, Turrell collaborated with a number of astronomers, most notably E.C. Krupp, Director of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles and Richard Walker from the U.S. Naval Observatory in Flagstaff. Each aperture and tunnel has been exactly calculated to form a naked eye observatory to view such events as the solstices, celestial bodies, and the changing light created by the normal rotation of the sun.
The architecture of Roden Crater is enormously precise. For example, the “East Portal” will act as a type of pinhole camera, transmitting light from the outside during sunset and projecting it through the tunnel onto the west side of a gigantic image stone in the “Sun | Moon Chamber” once every year to mark the major lunar standstill. The “Alpha Tunnel” acts as a natural telescope to monitor the moon, the “South Space” is aligned with the North Star and can track the Saros Cycle, and future plans will allow the volcano to focus the light from the winter solstice onto the Sun| Moon Chamber.
“What is important to me is to create an experience of worldless thought,” he says. Intended to be an exploration of the human universe as much as the external one, Turrell’s project will be his magnum opus when finally completed. His works will be soon the subject of two upcoming retrospectives this summer, and can be viewed at the Guggenheim in NYC starting June 21, and the Houston Museum of Fine Arts on June 9.
Images via James Turrell and Florian Holzherr.