This Old Crater

A volcanic cinder cone near Flagstaff will soon become one of the world's most significant pieces of environmental art

"A lot of it had to do with the way he allowed light into the room and manipulated it. You as the viewer weren't able to see the light source in many occasions. So entire parts of a room would kind of disappear."

Many critics and historians credit Turrell's installations from the 1960s and 1970s, along with those of fellow Californians Robert Irwin and Larry Bell, with opening new creative territory both for the idea of installations and the use of light and space.

In the 1970s and 1980s, he furthered his explorations of illusion and space with installations featuring fogs of color that made mirages of surfaces and corners in museum galleries.

Two of Turrell's light installations from the 1970s are included in the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art's current exhibition of installation art. In conjunction with the opening of the crater project next year, SMOCA will be hosting a major exhibition of Turrell's work.

The effects of Turrell's finest light installations can be profoundly disorienting.

Several people attending Turrell's 1980 exhibition at the Whitney Museum of Art in New York found his light illusions so convincing that they tried to lean against them--and fell down.

"Unfortunately, one was a woman whose husband was a justice of the Oregon State Supreme Court," says Turrell. "I got sued for that."

He lost the trial and won on appeal. Yet legal realities didn't curtail his pursuit of perceptual conundrums.

The 1998 Houston exhibition had people bumping into things, avoiding "unthings" and generally scratching their heads and rubbing their eyes about what they did and didn't see.

One room was especially bewildering, Herbert says. "It had a piece with a beautiful blue aperture, and people simply lost their equilibrium in it."

Turrell's installations, which sell for about $200,000, have enabled him to work out ideas for the spaces at Roden Crater. He has built outdoor rooms--called "skyspaces" and "sky gardens"--with shaped views of the heavens in various parts of the world. Next year, Scottsdale's public art program will be adding one of Turrell's "skyspaces" to its renovated civic plaza.

The artist has also experimented extensively with "dark spaces," rooms that initially appear totally black. But after about 15 minutes, they begin to dawn on visitors and force them to exercise their eyes in ways that illuminate the personal nature of perception.

His installations are attacks on a culture he thinks has forgotten how to look and see. He often refers to the eyes having their own sense of touch.

Working with the crater project and his other installations, Turrell says he has come to realize "that this ability to feel with the eyes really doesn't happen until the eyes begin to open. We weren't made for bright light because it almost completely closes our eyes. We're made for twilight. That's when our eyes truly open and feeling goes out of them like touch."

The light that visitors encounter at the crater will depend on where they're standing and when.

The crater is essentially an immense camera, with openings to gather and isolate varieties of celestial light. One room will be dedicated to catching light from the solstices and equinoxes.

In others, says Turrell, "I want to isolate lights from different planets. A few years ago, you could actually see your shadow from the light of Venus."

He also wants to mix lights from inside and outside our own solar system.
Says Turrell, "If you eliminate light reflecting off the planets or the moon--light from our star--and you take away light from our galaxy, the Milky Way, you're looking into areas of the sky that have much older light. It's light that would be on average at least 3.5 million years and older.

"I really wanted to isolate that light in the spaces I've designed here. So you feel it physically. You're actually in physical contact with this old light. Light that puts you closer to beginnings."

It isn't difficult to hear religion in Turrell's thoughts about light. The Bible begins with light, and for many of the world's religions, light is the essence of revelation and higher awareness. For Turrell, it has particular meaning.

"I was raised as a Quaker," he says, "and they always talked about going inside to greet the light. I was interested in that. Not only in the visible light but in the light seen with the eyes closed, the light and color in dreams."

Turrell's grandmother used to tell him about greeting the light and about meditations in meetings.

"Of course, you tell that to someone who's 4 years old," says Turrell, "and it's a little hard to actually know what the hell that means, and what to do about it."

And even if he had asked for an explanation, he says, "Some Quakers have this terrible way of repeating the answer that they gave at the first--the one you didn't quite understand. They just sort of say it more slowly, so the answer becomes a question that you have to answer."

If anything, Turrell's art has been an answer that only deepens that mystery. Yet that has been the territory of art since the first light entered the kiva, or lit on the stones at New Grange, in Ireland, or on Abu Simbel in Egypt.

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