Standing on the rim of an ancient volcanic crater in northern Arizona, with the Painted Desert as a spectacular backdrop, James Turrell surveys all he has wrought. For a quarter of a century, this 60-year-old artist has been transforming the crater into an immense naked-eye observatory. It is a modern counterpart of sites such as Newgrange in Ireland and Abu Simbel in Egypt, where earlier civilizations watched celestial events with both curiosity and awe.
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Not many people have yet seen the temple of light he has built here, and most of it is not visible from above, for it consists of a complex of chambers and tunnels extending deep below the surface. Two circular structures stand like stone eyes in the huge bowl of the crater. Through these eyes, Turrell explains, he is bringing the sky down into the earth, where underground visitors will experience it in a new way.
For Turrell, “bringing the sky down” is not just a poetic turn of phrase. He is intrigued by human perception, and studied perceptual psychology before turning to art. Ordinarily, he says, we take for granted that the sky is something “up there.” But from inside the crater the sky will drop down—not because he’s done anything to the sky, but because he has changed the context for viewing it. Some of the spaces are precisely, mathematically oriented to capture rare celestial events, while others are shaped and lit to make everyday sunsets and sunrises look extraordinary. What Turrell has wrought is, indeed, a monumental sculpture that combines ancient principles of archaeoastronomy with modern insights from the labs of perceptual psychologists. There is nothing like it on the face of the earth.
Even before descending from the crater’s rim, it’s hard to remember that we’re only about 40 miles northeast of Flagstaff and civilization. Roden Crater, as it’s called, is a mile in diameter at its base on the desert floor and rises 700 feet to its rim. It is only one of many such cone-shaped craters in the middle of a 1,800-square-mile volcanic field. Turrell first saw it from the air nearly 30 years ago while piloting his own plane, looking for a place to make art out of light. It stood in the outback of a ranch that wasn’t for sale, and Turrell had no money to buy it even if it were, but these were mere details to a visionary artist arriving from the sky.
Tall, white-haired and full-bearded, Turrell today looks a bit like an Old Testament prophet. And he’s probably sometimes felt like one in the decades it has taken to build this monument in the desert. After convincing the owner to sell him the ranch in 1977 and scraping up enough for a down payment, he has had to excavate and move 1.35 million cubic yards of dirt, install 660 tons of steel and pour 5,500 cubic yards of concrete, mixed onsite from volcanic cinder and rock. He’s also had to turn himself into a cattle rancher, not only to help realize the project but also to hold on to grazing leases around the crater so that others could not build houses and add artificial light to the night sky. Besides all this, he’s had to work with astronomers and archaeoastronomers in planning the observation of celestial events for thousands of years in the future, and he’s had to move heaven and earth to raise the money from foundations to pay for it all—$10 million to date. Eventually the site will be maintained by the Dia Foundation. When asked how soon Roden Crater will be open to the public, Turrell tugs his beard and mumbles, “Afew more years, just a few more years.”