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James Turrell's Light Fantastic

The innovative artist has devoted his life to transforming.

Heading back to the crater by daylight, however, Turrell turns from artist into rancher as he spots a pair of dusty cowboys driving a small herd of cattle toward us along the rutted, red-dirt road. He brakes the pickup, waiting for his ranch foreman and a young hand to ride up. Turrell has been away for more than a month, working on a project in Japan. “This has been a hard year for getting the art done,” he says to the foreman. “It’s been a hard year for the cow deal, too,” the cowboy replies from a sand-colored quarter horse, smiling through a sand-colored mustache as he surveys a grassland without much grass. For a few minutes, the man who contemplates celestial events thousands of years in the future talks about drought, coyotes and falling cattle prices.

 

“I don’t know if it’s harder to make a living as an artist or a rancher,” Turrell tells me as the pickup climbs the road around the crater’s outer slope. His inspiration for the project, he says, is ancient archaeological sites, including the early naked-eye observatories built by the 16th-century astronomer Tycho Brahe in Denmark. “These are special places,” he says, “antecedents for how we’ve looked at the sky before, how we’ve entered the sky.”

 

Partway up to the rim Turrell parks the truck near a gaping hole in the side of the crater, the mouth of a steel-andconcrete tunnel that goes through its depths and ends up in its bowl, which is higher than the place we are standing now. We enter the tunnel and step into a round antechamber that awaits the installation of a 17-foot-tall slab of white marble.

At summer solstice sunrises and certain lunar events, says Turrell, full images of the sun and moon will be projected onto the slab’s white surface. Turrell conjures up a 10-foot image of the moon projected 120 feet underground. “I want this celestial object to enter your territory, to be part of your physical space,” he says. “And in the tunnel, I want you to have the feeling of going up into the sky.”

 

At first, walking uphill through the tunnel, which is nearly as long as three football fields, the sky appears as a small circle of light that grows larger as you get closer to it. Orienting it precisely to align with celestial events took years of calculations, made by retired U.S. Naval Observatory astronomer Dick Walker, with input from archaeoastronomer Ed Krupp, director of Los Angeles’ Griffith Observatory, and other scientists and engineers recruited for the project.

 

It’s easy to think of this passage toward the light, as Turrell does, in metaphorical terms. It seems like the kind of tunnel often described in near-death experiences, or the sort of hole in the earth from which the first people emerged into light in the origin myths of the Hopi and other indigenous peoples. As you near the end of the tunnel, however, you forget about myths. With every step, you see the shape of the opening changing from a circle into an ellipse. It’s a bizarre sight. But it’s just simple geometry, Turrell says reassuringly. An ellipse seen at a certain angle will appear as a circle. “It’s one thing to know the math,” he says, “but I want you to feel the shape change as a real, physical experience.” It’s an unforgettable feeling. Finally, at the tunnel’s end we step into the dazzling white chamber of the East Portal and look up at the sky through the 10-by-29-foot ellipse that is now overhead, with a sleek bronze stairway inviting us to ascend. The white walls of the chamber, the height of the stairs (with no handrails) and the bright light of the sky are disorienting as we climb upward into the base of the crater’s bowl. It’s like climbing through a cigar-shaped UFO and stepping into the sky.

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