Jul 3, 2012

5 W's of James Turrell's Roden Crater

James Turrell, Roden Crater (image source).

"[Roden Crater] has knowledge in it, and it does something with that knowledge." — James Turrell

American artist, Guggenheim Fellow (1974), MacArthur Fellow (1984), Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres (1991), James Turrell. Turrell now lives and works in Arizona, but spent his early life in Southern California, attending Pomona College (B.A., Perceptual Psychology 1965) and Claremont Graduate School, and University of California, Irvine (M.A., Art 1966). His works frequently incorporate a psychological play on the viewer in his artistic attempts to alter our "normal" field of visual perception. Turrell's parents were Quakers: his father was an aeronautical engineer, his mother a medical doctor. Turrell got his pilot's license at age 16, a helpful skill for when he was flying around the western United States scouting the perfect location for this project. 

James Turrell, Roden Crater (image source).
The Roden Crater Project, which is housed inside a 400,000 year old, 600 foot tall volcano that rises 5,000 feet above sea level. The rim of the crater is more than 1,000 feet in diameter! Roden Crater is two-toned, the inner red cone is younger than the exterior black cone -- a color pattern that results from different phases of pyroclastic eruptions. The soaring height of Roden allows Turrell to "engage the visual phenomena of celestial vaulting [video] and its counterpart in the concave earth illusion," says Craig Adock, author of James Turrell: The Art of Light and Space. Celestial vaulting is the visual phenomenon of the sky's appearing vertically closer right above our heads than the distance between ourselves to the horizon (this is similar to how we perceive the moon when it is directly overhead versus on the horizon). The concave earth effect is what happens when we're in hot air balloons and the surface of the earth "curves upwards" like a concave plate. See Marcel Minnaert's The Nature of Light and Color in the Open Air for more about these everyday visual illusions.

Near Flagstaff, Ariz in the San Francisco Volcanic Field (a still active field!) This crater is within eyesight of the Painted Desert and the Grand Canyon. There are over 200 other extinct volcanoes nearby. Roden's last eruption was around 900 years ago. Looking down from the top of the crater (after an arduous 700 foot vertical hike on loose footing) is comprable to the distance between the top of the Chrysler Building to street level in Manhattan -- but public visits are not yet allowed. 

Interior viewing space at Roden Crater
(image source).
Turrell conceived of the project in 1974 as a way to break out of the confines of an art gallery or studio and explore light and space in a natural setting. Turrell purchased the 1,100-acre crater site for under $7,000 in 1977 and began construction in 1979. The proposed completion date was 1990, but has been delayed due to funding shortages (become a Friend of the Roden Crater to support Turrell's project). 

Turrell wants to transform this old volcano into a naked eye observatory of the sky, similar to those used during the 18th century in India. "I'm interested in public places that are devoid of their function — Mayan and Egyptian ruins, for examples, and places such as Mesa Verde." According to Turrell, contemporary architecture's overuse of right angles has made us blind to the shape of buildings themselves because the perimeters of human vision are more rounded than rectilinear. Turrell will alter the crater interior through displacing 438,000 cubic yards of dirt (the exterior will remain unchanged) so visitors can lay down inside the crater, resulting in an altered perceptual viewpoint of the sky.

"Light is a powerful substance. We have a primal connection to it. I like to work with it so that you feel it physically, so you feel the presence of light inhabiting a space." — James Turrell

Join us on July 13 for a Member's Preview of James Turrell's show in the El Pomar Gallery. For a little teaser, visit Convolutions, the Permanent Collection show on view now in the first floor galleries meant to complement the themes of space and light in the James Turrell and Scott Johnson exhibitions. 

James Turrell | Trace Elements: Light into Space
Scott Johnson | Places Apart
July 14 - Sept. 30

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