Confronting Ancient Light

James Turrell casts a long shadow in the art world, and no project is bigger than that of his Roden Crater: an ancient, non-active volcanic crater in the Arizona desert which he is converting to a naked-eye observatory. Michael Govan writes in the book James Turrell: A Retrospective, “In some parts Roden Crater is an architectonic camera obscure, rendering the image of celestial bodies like the sun or moon within spaces we inhabit—bringing outside light inside.”

James Turrell casts a long shadow in the art world, and no project is bigger than that of his Roden Crater: an extinct volcanic cinder cone in the Arizona desert he is converting to a naked-eye observatory. As Michael Govan writes in the book James Turrell: A Retrospective, “In some parts, Roden Crater is an architectonic camera obscura, rendering the image of celestial bodies like the sun or moon within spaces we inhabit—bringing outside light inside.”

Light, as controlled by revolutionary light installation artist James Turrell, becomes something tangible we can touch, something we feel with mind, body, and spirit that pulls us to our higher purposes. Turrell doesn’t experiment with light. His work is light, interacting with us in precisely made spaces that isolate the light and allow us to form relationships with it as a physical presence.

In October 2013, I scored a front-row seat to hear the internationally famous Turrell address a standing-room-only crowd of architecture students and faculty at The University of Texas at Austin. Midday sunlight flooded the ballroom, pouring in through floor-to-ceiling windows and bouncing off Turrell’s thick head of white hair.

I listened, transfixed, as Turrell spoke of a lifetime love affair with light. Now 72, he’s in a race against time to complete one of the most enormous art projects ever tackled: the conversion of the Roden Crater, an extinct volcanic cinder cone, into a naked-eye observatory that draws natural light into underground chambers and tunnels.

Turrell remains focused on his vision of what he calls confronting ancient light: of creating spaces inside the Roden Crater where people can look into parts of the universe that cradle stars older than our solar system.

I, like those around me, fell under Turrell’s spell as his soft, kind eyes swept the room, drawing us into his description of human beings’ relationships with light. We resemble crustaceans, he said, inhabiting these shells we construct. Like hermit crabs playing musical chairs, we move around and within our mobile and immobile shells — vehicles, homes, work places — generally oblivious to how we’re connected, and disconnected, to light.

Turrell described the heart of his work, of creating holes in our shells, whatever they might be, to set the light free. I looked around at people sitting on the edges of their seats. I wasn’t the only one moved. We were all on the same wavelength. At talk’s end, I and hundreds of other people would have followed James Turrell anywhere, coming out of our shells, and into the light.

Light, as Turrell is oft quoted, is not so much something that reveals as it is itself the revelation. Light is.

Watch an exquisitely made short film about James Turrell’s magnum opus, the Roden Crater, at http://vimeo.com/67926427. The film, commissioned by The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, was produced in conjunction with the “James Turrell: A Retrospective” exhibition held from spring 2013 through spring 2014 at the museum. The exhibition, held concurrently with similar ones at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City and The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, formed a comprehensive retrospective of Turrell’s art career. To learn more about Turrell’s revolutionary work with light, go to http://jamesturrell.com, http://jamesturrell.com/about/reviews, and www.lacma.org/james-turrell-in-the-press.

Watch an exquisitely made short film about James Turrell’s magnum opus, the Roden Crater, at http://vimeo.com/67926427. As commissioned by The Los Angeles County Museum of Art — which provided both photos for display on this page — the film was produced in conjunction with the “James Turrell: A Retrospective” exhibition, held from spring 2013 through spring 2014 at the museum. The exhibition, held concurrently with similar ones at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City and The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, formed a comprehensive retrospective of Turrell’s art career.

To learn more about Turrell’s revolutionary work with light, go to:
http://jamesturrell.comhttp://jamesturrell.com/about/reviews, http://rodencrater.com/james,
and 
www.lacma.org/james-turrell-in-the-press.

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