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James Turrell's Light Fantastic

The innovative artist has devoted his life to transforming.

“I like to use light as a material,” he explains, “but my medium is really perception. I want you to sense yourself sensing. To see yourself seeing. To be aware of how you are forming the reality you see.” He points to the bowl of Roden Crater, which looks as natural as it is ancient. “We moved more than a million cubic yards of cinder, and it looks almost the same,” he says with a smile. But it was painstakingly shaped and reshaped, as was the rim he and I are now standing on, until it created the right framework for seeing the sky as a celestial vault or dome, as in some medieval and early Renaissance paintings, rather than as a flat expanse.

 

On the rim of the crater, sunset is approaching. We climb down into the bowl, enter a tunnel and descend through darkness into a large white circular chamber; the walls appear to slope inward to the ceiling, a flat white disk with a circular opening at the center. This underground room is called the Crater’s Eye, and we are looking up through it into the fading daylight of a desert sky. Astone bench runs around the perimeter of the room so one can lean back and stare upward. And wait.

 

“All the work I do has a strange sense of time,” Turrell says as we sit there. “Often you have to wait for an effect to develop.” The room we are in looks like a kiva, the kind of underground circular chamber used for religious ceremonies at ChacoCanyon, the 1,000-year-old Anasazi pueblo ruin in a desert to the east, and still used by the Hopi and other Pueblo Indians today. Yet Turrell has given this ancient design a spaceage update. The smooth, polished sandstone and white plaster, and the pure geometry enclosing us, make me feel as if I’m inside some cosmic egg, the sort of space familiar from sci-fi movies.

 

As we wait, the pale blue sky outside is still a little brighter than the room, which is dimly lit by a hidden ring of neon tubes set into the wall above us. Over the next half hour, time seems to speed up as the sky runs through an almost indescribable palette of distilled blues and reds, azure melting into turquoise into violet into purple, and darkening to a midnight blue that soon turns solidly, impenetrably black. Strangely, as the colors deepen, the sky seems to drop down onto the crater. It loses its ordinary sense of being somewhere “up there,” and ends up “down here,” sitting like an obsidian slab on the ceiling of the room.

 

Turrell has not said anything during this spectacle, but now he tells me to go back up through the tunnel into the bowl of the crater outside and look at the sky. It is the glowing twilight blue of lapis lazuli, still perfectly sky-high, nothing like the black “slab” hovering over the Crater’s Eye. When I rejoin him, he’s grinning like a magician ready to take his bow, but there’s no magic here. It’s not even an illusion, he says. The sky inside is just as real as the sky outside. It all depends on how we see it. What Turrell has done inside the room is to balance the inside lighting with the light of the sunset sky in a way that alters our perception of it.“We’re not very aware of how we create reality,” he says. “My work is just a gentle reminder that we’re making this world, that we shape it, literally, we color it, literally. We give the sky its color; it isn’t something that is just received.” As I drive with him across the desert later that night, he promises to take me deeper into the crater in the morning, through an immense tunnel that is part of a naked-eye observatory that he says will serve for millennia to come.

 

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