A visit to Roden Crater: James Turrell’s master work

James Turrell

James Turrell (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Grey cinder cones march out across a flat expanse of sagebrush and scattered juniper trees.  The air is clear – you are 6,500 feet above sea level in the Painted Desert – and the horizon is dotted with buttes and mesas, some 80 miles distant.  There is hardly a sign of human life, though Native Americans have lived here for thousands of years.  This is the landscape that James Turrell has chosen for a magnum opus like no other: the transformation of an extinct volcano into a celestial art work.

A blizzard descends on Northern Arizona just as I arrive, and on the morning of my last day I have almost given up hope of seeing the Roden Crater.  But I have not allowed for the determination of Turrell’s colleague, Helen Winkler, who takes the view that the hardest journeys yield the greatest rewards.  We drive into the storm, ploughing through deep snow and out into the desert where, quite suddenly, the low clouds clear to reveal a blue sky, sparkling with wind-blown ice flakes.  There at last is the Crater, and just beside the dirt road, a ruined stone hut that once belonged to the 19th century settler called Roden, who has given his name to Turrell’s extraordinary project.

The 4×4 climbs up the cone to a point at which a pair of double doors opens in its side.  Within, you enter a new world.  A pale slab of stone stands in a perfect circle of volcanic ash, its inclined plane directly facing a distant source of brilliant white light.  As your eyes adjust to the surrounding darkness, you realise that the light is at the end of a narrow tunnel – 854 ft long – that has been driven right through the volcano to emerge on the inner side of the central crater.  As you walk up the slope, the distant circle of light slowly changes.  The white light gradually turns blue and the circle elongates into an ellipse.  Looking back down the tunnel, faintly lit on either side by rows of lamps at floor level, you see a perfect circle of blue light illuminating the white stone slab: the Image Stone.

The Alpha Tunnel, as it is called, is aligned so that once every 18.6 years the light of the setting moon can be focussed directly on the Image Stone.  And every year, for a few days either side of the winter solstice, the Image Stone also captures the light of the setting sun.

At last you emerge through a tall aperture, shaped like a giant key-hole, into a chamber like no other, the geometrical perfection of which is ageless.  Above, the source of light is now brilliantly clear – the open sky.  Facing you as you emerge from the dark is a polished flight of steps cast from a single piece of bronze which rises, tapering, to the very edge of the aperture – a staircase to the sky.  At the foot of the steps, set into the polished pink stone floor, is an ellipse of flecked blue marble, which turns into a circle when seen from the top of the staircase: an image of the earth seen from space.  During the course of the day, the quality and intensity of the light entering this Eastern Portal of the Roden Crater changes constantly, the darkness of night giving way to the brightness of noon, and dusk sliding smoothly into darkness as the earth turns.

Unlike much contemporary art, Turrell’s work takes nothing for granted – except that the viewer can see.  You don’t need any inside knowledge, nor a degree in Art History.  A Quaker by upbringing, Turrell is an aviator and a sailor – a man who understands the movement of the sun, moon and stars, and how to find his way by their light.  He also knows a lot about the brain, and how we unconsciously construct the ‘reality’ that we perceive.  His art is designed to help us catch sight of ourselves in the very act of seeing and to enable us to discover with refreshed eyes the everyday wonders of light – especially the light that comes from beyond the ‘ocean of air’ that is the Earth’s atmosphere.

When you enter one of Turrell’s ‘Skyspaces’ you are entering a realm of metaphor.  Here light is not just the pulsing of electromagnetic radiation, stimulating neurons in your visual cortex – it is also a symbol that reminds us of our place in the universe and of our relationship with long-dead ancestors who understood, perhaps better than we, how much life on this planet depends on it.  Above all, we recall the role that light plays as a spiritual principle in every one of the world’s religions.  Many people today are uncomfortable with formal religion, and most artists fight shy of it too.  But if sacred art is still being made there can be no more potent example than the Roden Crater.

Turrell first found the Roden Crater more than 30 years ago.  He has been working on it ever since, but he still has a long way to go.  Another tunnel has yet to be driven through the other side of the volcano, and several more Skyspaces are to be constructed around the Crater.  When it eventually opens to the public it will be a wonder of the world.

See also http://jamesturrell.com/ and https://artsy.net/artist/james-turrell

David Barrie

5 Responses to “A visit to Roden Crater: James Turrell’s master work”
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  3. Matt M says:

    Just wondering how you were able to gain access to Roden Crater. We are students doing a project, planning on visiting Flagstaff this summer and would like to do some field work at Roden Crater. Having a hard time getting permission to visit the site this summer.


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