Exploring James Turrell's Roden Crater

October 6, 2019

Upon a closer look at art history, wondrous monumental structures made by humans are revealed. They had various purposes, but of particular interest were the open observatories for monitoring celestial events, the first ones built in the ancient times. The idea about the naked-eye observatories was for the first time crystallized by the great astronomer Tycho Brahe in the sixteenth century.

The 20th century brought major changes when it comes to the intersection of art and science and artists naturally became more interested in producing innovative multimedia works which are hard to categorize. One of the most daring monumental projects on the verge of Minimal and Land art, architecture, installation art, and architecture was built by an American artist James Turrell under the name The Roden Crater.

The practice of this notable figure is critically acknowledged in the context of the Light and Space art movement present throughout the 1960s. Turrell himself was interested in perceptual phenomena, primarily the light, and came to prominence for his spectacular light projections and tunnels.

It might be said that The Roden Crater is Turrell’s life project since it is still in progress. Namely, the artist acquired the four hundred thousand years old and three mile wide crater and turned it into a massive naked-eye observatory, designed specifically for viewing and experiencing sky-light, solar, and celestial phenomena.

The Roden Crater Left The Sun - Moon Chamber Right Alpha (East) Tunnel
The Roden Crater. Left: The Sun - Moon Chamber / Right: Alpha (East) Tunnel. Photos by Florian Holzherr. ©2019 Skystone Foundation; all images © James Turrell

The Construction Preparations and The Location of The Roden Crater

This unprecedented site for experiencing celestial phenomena is located in the remote area of the Painted Desert region in Northern Arizona. Although it appears to be non-invasive to the surrounding landscape, this obscure observatory consists of specially engineered sections where the cycles of geologic and celestial time can be directly experienced.

While articulating the idea behind this work, James Turrell was governed by the belief that light, whether natural or artificial, should be presented practically as self-sufficient and not dependent on the humans. The imperative was to select a location where the vast sky can be seen as unlimited at a high altitude, which he ultimately found on The Roden Crater.

Right after the artist acquired it in 1977, he started constructing tunnels and apertures which generated daily sunlight, as well as the light from the planets and stars at night. The separate spaces titled The East Portal, the Alpha (East) Tunnel and the Sun | Moon Chamber function as a monumental pinhole camera (also known as Camera Obscura). The East Portal aperture transmits light to the Alpha (East) Tunnel which then focuses images on the west side of the monumental image stone located in the Sun | Moon Chamber.

The Roden Crater, Fumarole Spaces in the Arizona Desert
The Roden Crater, Fumarole Spaces. ©2019 Skystone Foundation; all images © James Turrell

The Phases

During the first phase of construction, the movement spanning through 1.3 million cubic yards of earth was erected to shape the Crater Bowl and enable the construction of the East Tunnel. Along with these two spaces which were the most difficult to build, six other spaces were constructed.

Through The Roden Crater planning and construction Turrell collaborated with notable astronomers such as E.C. Krupp, Director of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, and the late Richard Walker, an astronomer with the U.S. Naval Observatory in Flagstaff, so that the excavation and alignment of the Crater’s tunnels and apertures could be properly calculated.

After the completion, the project will consist of twenty one viewing spaces and six tunnels, so the Crater will then function as a naked-eye observatory for celestial objects and events differing from the season and the occasional happenings.

James Turrell The Roden Crater Arizona

James Turrell The Roden Crater - The Significance and the Trivia Surrounding It

Since the construction on The Roden Crater is in progress, the site has been closed for public. Initially, the artist announced the completion during the 1990s, then the goal was set for 2011, and ever since there weren’t any new predictions. Nevertheless, the access to the site is reserved only for the artist’s friends, although the fans can gain the same under the condition they complete the Turrell tour which implies seeing the artist’s work in twenty-three countries across the globe.

For the fundraiser, only on one specific occasion in 2015, The Roden Crater was open for a carefully selected group of eighty people. The groups of twenty people per day were able to see the site for four days for an outrages price of $6,500 per person. In September 2019, it was also announced that rapper Kanye West would release a new film in collaboration with IMAX, filmed in The Roden Crater. Aside from that, the site is a highly mysterious place, and only several bold fans succeeded to see it without the artist's permission.

It seems quite clear that James Turrell’s Roden Crater is the artist’s projection of utopia. It stands shoulder to shoulder with the similar projects imagined by 18th-century French architects Ledoux and Boulle, the 1960s genius Lebbeus Woods or some of Anish Kapoor’s less mysterious projects. It is the milestone of Turrell’s career, a mysterious and puzzling work constructed to last for centuries to come which offers a multisensory experience.

Featured images: The Roden Crater Bowl; The Roden Crater, East Portal, Arizona. ©2019 Skystone Foundation; all images © James Turrell.

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