For some weeks toilet paper has been accumulating outside by our back steps. Its identity was discovered yesterday, the Sunday of our biannual deep clean. Someone had spread the contents of our freezer across the kitchen floor. Someone else had made pancakes, for morale. I was inside the downstairs shower. All of us, of course, had noticed the feathery white mass before. Each had tried not to see it too well.
What is that, someone finally asks, from the hall, shoving care till it budges. Vacuums go silent. I’m told to flush the toilet. A group gathered outside, by the back steps. I flushed. A gasp.
Most of us have spent the best part of the last two years in this house. Like much of what was once quietly fundamental, the house asked for more attention during lockdown. We all know now how its front doorframe contracts in the cold, how each of us sounds on the stairs. A ladder connects the second-floor landing to the house’s attic, where I live. Light enters through two skylights. In the evening, the light is warm. It’s pale in the morning. This past summer from eleven to five the attic was uninhabitable. Even in autumn the light is relentless, hard and weirdly substantial. That relentless red-yellow-and-blue California light. Four redwoods drop debris on my car and guard the house.
Taped beneath one of my skylights are two images of James Turrell’s Roden Crater, from an advert for a gallery on Blossom Street in Houston. One is a photograph of the Crater from 1978. The second, dated 1988-92, is a revised site plan. It’s been over four decades since Turrell began to work on his Crater. I was introduced to the project last year. Both images are now discolored by the attic’s light, which is apt, as the project, despite or because of its terrific ambition—for posterity, for the perception of light and space—can’t quite transcend its context or material circumstances. And here, from my perspective, what’s most extraordinary about the Crater seems to be something small and simple and very nearly commonplace.
Turrell was born in Los Angeles and raised in Pasadena to a Quaker family. He came of age as an artist in the Southern California of the late 1960s. Once evicted from a hotel in Santa Monica, Turrell flew his Helio Courier across the American Southwest for seven months in 1974 in search of a new studio space. He first saw Roden Crater from the sky. The extinct cinder cone sits forty miles northeast of Flagstaff, Arizona, at the western edge of the Painted Desert and eastern edge of the San Francisco volcanic field. Turrell began to develop plans for the site immediately. The land was not for sale. Its purchase was finalized in 1977.
Roden Crater, Turrell’s monumental, naked-eye observatory, is a mostly subterranean network of chambers and tunnels built into the extinct cone and calibrated to celestial events. Through a keyhole aperture called the East Portal, light enters the Crater’s 854-foot-long Alpha (East) Tunnel, likely the world’s longest refractor telescope, and gathers in the Sun | Moon Chamber. Every 18.61 years a white marble stone in the middle of the chamber will display an image of the moon during the Major Lunar Standstill. The stone is eight feet across and set in a black basalt triangle. Turrell calls it the image stone. The image will be of a high enough resolution, allegedly, for observers to count lunar craters. I once read that a pool of water in the volcano’s fumarole will receive radio waves from deep space. I once heard that Turrell lived in the fumarole for two years, alone, in an octagonal house.
The chamber called the Crater’s Eye is a Skyspace, an art form created and refined by Turrell, a structure that opens to a ceiling aperture and from within which the sky seems depthless and its color extraordinary. Turrell’s eighty-odd Skyspaces, installed in at least nineteen countries, can seem like mere sketches for Roden. The Projection Pieces, Ganzfelds, Perceptual Cells, Wedgeworks—mere experiments, mere exercises, mere financial instruments for the lonely masterwork slowly taking shape and giving form to Turrell’s life. Twenty-four Spaces are planned, and six tunnels. I recently read a study of Turrell by the art historian Craig Adcock. It was published thirty years ago. The Crater “is planned for completion in the late 1990s if all goes well,” writes Adcock, omitting a comma before “if.” This past July I was told to expect the announcement of the Crater’s opening within the next five years. This was, mind, not the promise of an opening, but the promise of an announcement of an opening. The email was signed “James Turrell Studio.” Turrell could not be interviewed because he is focusing on the project’s advancement. He will turn 79 this spring.
Turrell is a light artist. He claims that perception is his medium. In his work, he says, light is not the means by which we see the world, but the thing of thought itself. Other artists often grouped with Turrell share an interest in perception, place and atmosphere, not object but aesthetic experience. Robert Irwin and Doug Wheeler come to mind, Maria Nordman, Eric Orr. But Turrell was uniquely prepared, says Adcock, to take “perceptual art to some of its most austere and beautiful conclusions.” Hundreds of millions of dollars have been required for the construction of Roden’s austere conclusions. Walk back up its Alpha Tunnel, toward the East Portal, and what looks like a circle shifts to an ellipse. What seems like a keyhole is a stairway to the sky. Lie at the Crater’s edge and the world curves down. These are not optical illusions, Turrell says. The lesson, if we’re to look for one, is that perception is creative. We are co-creators of the phenomenal world. Fine, you think, I knew that. Yes, Turrell replies, propositionally. You know, too, of the earth’s slow turn. But in the South Space you can feel it.
Most respond to Turrell’s work with enthusiasm. There are, for example, the phenomenologists, deterred but not defeated by the fact that Turrell already and explicitly discusses Merleau-Ponty’s influence on his work. There are non-experts, who write of their experience without pretense. “I can’t believe this place. Absolutely amazing,” says one student of the Crater, in the early 2000s. “I felt like I was ten years old again,” writes another. More sophisticated non-experts reach for words like “chthonic” and “transcendence.” “Sublime” is ubiquitous. “Rapture,” “revelation” and “empyrean” are also common. These experiences, in the end, are “indescribable.” Many professional writers, especially those who have visited the Crater, end up at the same place as the non-experts—that is, at perfection—but ride a longer narrative arc. Worries bend to wonder. One moves through desiccated irony and a few justified doubts to say, without losing face, that Turrell’s art is the stuff of dreams.
Perhaps “sublime” has always raised an irreverent eyebrow, I don’t know. Its application seems suspect today. The word is one of Western aesthetics’ mustiest. The mustiest word of a dusty discipline. At the very least it’s overused. On either side of the continental/analytical fence, new work in the field has tended to focus on smaller things. Sianne Ngai, for example, has argued that trivial aesthetic categories like the “zany,” “cute” and “interesting” better reflect everyday life in our “totally aestheticized present”: the “hypercommodified, information-saturated, performance-driven conditions of late capitalism.” In a major key, philosopher Yuriko Saito’s everyday aesthetics have also focused on smaller things, like our ordinary, appreciative engagements with the familiar and mundane. It’s laundry, board games and perfume for some, squishy pillows for others. Beauty, to be sure, hasn’t gone away, and the last page on Kant is still forthcoming. But one hopes for relevance. And the sublime, as Ngai observes, isn’t to be found in “the pores of culture.”
I think that’s true. I think that most who reflect on their lives with others know it to be true. The other evening I was speaking with someone who works on Aristotle. We were sitting under an arcade at the edge of a courtyard. He drew my attention to the exterior of the courtyard’s chapel, which featured personifications of the theological virtues. Charity, faith, hope and love. There are, he reminded me, only three theological virtues. The capitals of the courtyard’s columns were decorated with big stone hearts. A few of the hearts looked like Valentine’s Day candy. The pores of culture. Think of your life here and tell me what it tastes like. Tell me that it tastes sublime.
When I think of my life over the past few years, the house is what comes to mind. Our big blue house and its needs and seasons. We discovered other problems during the deep clean, like the hole from the cellar where the rats were entering. Rat problems take a long time to escalate, our landlord said, in May. In June an emergency house meeting was called. The freezer was first on the agenda. The freezer was so full that it had become a source of stress. We had lost access to anything below the vegan waffles. On one account, impossible to verify, there were ten “basically empty” cartons of cashew ice cream in the lower regions. Blueberries had spilled into the ice bucket. Some were uncomfortable with Sasha’s frozen mice. An off-topic plea was made, again, to rinse dishes before putting them in the dishwasher. We moved from the freezer to the rats. Catch-and-release traps had been placed next to a hard plastic tub of peanuts, which was now chewed through. More violent methods were proposed. Consensus was not achieved.
In Zoom meetings, or when my monitor starts to look like an opaque sheet of light, I’ve taken to looking at the objects in my room. The old photograph of Roden is a close shot. It was captured before Turrell began to purchase land surrounding the Crater, to protect its viewshed. He went into cattle ranching to qualify for a loan. Walking Cane Ranch continues to support the project and now also supplies beef to steakhouses in New York. The late, stupendously titled Count Giuseppe Panza di Biumo was a friend of the Crater. So is the Dia Art Foundation, a sponsor since the Seventies, and, as art historian Anna Chave notes, Panza’s successor as patron of whatever in minimalism is most metaphysically ambitious. Many of Turrell’s works have been installed in the homes of celebrity clients. Drake fucks with Turrell. Kanye also and more famously fucks with Turrell. In 2020, Mark Pincus, the founder of Zynga mobile games, donated three million dollars to the project. This donation was announced at a party in West Hollywood’s San Vicente Bungalows. According to the Hollywood Reporter, that night, Grimes gave a surprise DJ set. Leonardo DiCaprio and Maria Sharapova were also there.
Many respond with enthusiasm to Turrell’s work, but not all. Some ask why an art that loudly insists on embodied experience is so successfully Instagrammable. Its engineering of elevated feeling can be annoyingly effective, like a weepie. One wonders at the theatricality of the Crater. One wonders if its artificial marvels will overwhelm the earth, sun and sky they were designed to celebrate. One looks back to Kanye, and suspects a gimmick. The project’s double-XL purposeless purposiveness can smack of VC tech culture and ten-minute space flights. Millions could have been donated.
More serious charges could be made. The Crater is, perhaps, inappropriate. Walter De Maria has been criticized for erecting large poles on a remote plateau in New Mexico and bussing in coastal elites for a “choreographed exercise in the experience of epiphany.” The landscape, some claim, was always already extraordinary enough, unadorned, for the indigenous. De Maria, Michael Heizer, Richard Serra, Turrell—“the big boys with their big big toys,” as the land artists were once described to me. Perhaps these men, alone together, are writing the latest chapter in the aesthetic colonization of the American West. There’s something outlandish about the building of a sacred mountain. There’s something irritating, now, about the romantic gesture. Turrell is trying to bring the music of the spheres into the space of human experience. Enough with America and its Ahabs, some will say. Enough with this main character energy.
It is, though, not Turrell’s fault that a project shaped within a late-capitalist lifeworld is bent by its forces. The attention of donors must be grabbed. It’s also not Turrell’s fault that people crave gurus, or that the project’s collaborative nature is everywhere underemphasized. The Alpha Tunnel’s enormous lens was built by the University of Arizona’s Mirror Lab and the McDonald Observatory in Texas. Turrell has worked with acousticians, architects like Robert Mangurian, astronomers like Richard Walker and Ed Krupp. He worked with Navajo leaders to tighten Flagstaff’s dark sky ordinances. Arizona State University is now a collaborator and plans to incorporate the project into the curricula of several of its schools. And its sheer extravagance is what makes art art, for some, its sheer being for something beyond necessity. Its sovereignty and servility are born from the same renunciation, says George Bataille. Art is untethered from the needs of reality so as to respond to the outsized desires of those who live there.
Turrell hasn’t significantly altered the landscape, unlike other earth artists, just a bit of shaving around the rim. Success in the sense of public appreciation came much later in life for Turrell than for others, after many decades of the patient perfecting of his art. Roden may be inaccessible, but that’s partly its point—anticipation in time and space is part of the project, the number of visitors to the Crater will likely remain tightly controlled and its desert roads unpaved. There may be something simply irreconcilable about the wholly special and the convenient. Erecting an axis of orientation may seem outlandish. But it’s nice to know that someone still thinks a common orientation is possible. And it’s hard to deny that Turrell’s Crater is committed to something larger than Turrell. It has, I think, ambitions to unify, an ambition to decenter ourselves, to get us to think in scales that aren’t set by our own agendas or even human time, to get us to care as much about air, space, water and light as our own personal profiles, or at the very least to care more than we do now or in times of immediate crisis, and to do it all through the large, theatrical, creative destruction of lifetime. Can we care for people without caring for our cast-iron pans, Saito asks. Can we care for people without caring for landscapes? To get us to see that the morning is always good—what would it take? To reveal the empyrean, to commune with the chthonic deities, to get us to see that we dwell here, among these things, and that it’s all just absolutely amazing?
I often feel cynical about activities of “world-making,” both large and small. Mass extinction, ocean acidification, technofossils, half a trillion tons of concrete, billions of tons of plastic waste: humans, and certainly humans with power, have, it seems, done enough already to make themselves at home. Our marks are everywhere. It’s interesting that, despite these marks, the Anthropocene hasn’t yet been established by the scientific community as a geologically real category. Even geologists are aware that the term’s definition will never be purely scientific. In Nature in 2015, two possible dates for the beginning of our era were suggested: 1610, corresponding to a dip in carbon levels induced by the genocide and ecocide that followed the arrival of the Europeans in the Americas, or 1964, corresponding to a peak of radionuclide levels in the atmosphere. Blood is an option, it seems, or trash. A group of geologists has proposed the broiler chicken, which requires constant human maintenance, as a symbol for our time.
I recently met someone who studied at Rice University. When I asked her about the Skyspace Turrell installed there, Twilight Epiphany, which looks like a ziggurat, she said, “Yeah, it’s cool, but you know my senses are like completely destroyed.” Persistent, low-grade numbness, an everyday anesthetics, would seem to capture something of the spirit of our moment, the failure of the imagination in the wake of the loss of a future. A “sense of doom has gathered in the horizon of our perceptions and grows larger every day,” wrote minimalist theorist and artist Robert Morris in the early 1980s. Blood, trash and broiler chickens. It doesn’t seem possible, in our time, to get the sublime off the ground.
Last January my ficus was infested with fungus gnats. It took some time to recognize the situation as a problem to be addressed and not a cohabitation to be accepted. Other than the gnats, the seasons and the temperature in my attic, little here has changed, and I haven’t strayed very far. I flew once, post-vaccine, pre-Delta, to give a conference talk on Turrell. After the presentation, in the Q&A, someone asked if I had visited the Crater myself. I have not. This seemed to violate a principle of art criticism.
I’ve seen just one of Turrell’s works. Three Gems is a Skyspace built in 2005 in the sculpture garden of the de Young Museum in San Francisco. Anyone can enter during opening hours, no ticket required. Signs for Turrell’s Skyspace point to the back corner. It looks like a mound of vegetation. It looks like where a museum might otherwise store its dumpsters. It is, in fact, a covered stupa. You enter through a short tunnel. People take professional-looking pictures in its adobe-colored outer shell. The space is gray inside. Gray bench, white dome, oculus. There’s discoloration around the rim, and one crack. Beneath the oculus is a deep blue-green stone. Two LED light projectors are built into the walls, but they’re not on. Water must drain below the benches. Quiet. The pencil, park sounds, quacks, a depressed bus. Sounds come in through the bottom of the structure and leave softened through the top. The more you stare at the oculus the flatter it seems. People talk in the outer shell but then enter, settle into the silence of the place, and leave, eventually, in silence. It’s not cold. Shadows gather around the oculus. The flat light starts to look even flatter and more manmade. It’s wonderful and a little sad, you think, that this is always here. That the bench is always here, and the shadows darkening from the oculus down, and the oculus itself, which seems to grow into a more perfect, circular self, for those of us just sitting there looking up at the solid stone of light. The red, purple, gray, slate, blue, mist and pearl light leaves a residue when you look away, thinking that the garden gate will be closing soon. Outside, ceramic apples decorate the lawn, and a giant safety pin, and two statues that both look like polar bears.
Someone else at the conference asked, rhetorically, if I hadn’t skirted my critical duty. I seemed to be waffling. The subject is interesting, no one would deny it, but the name of the game is to settle into a position, not to shift from high to low. Defend a judgment, he said. Humility or hubris. Everyday perception or a loud address to posterity. Criticism or awe, celebrities or starlight. Where exactly do you stand? What, precisely, do you think?
I think often of the fact that Turrell has been working on his Crater for four decades. I keep that fact close, with the coins in my wallet. I turn it about on walks around the neighborhood or sitting in traffic on the 101; when wonder, that primary philosophical affect, is cut down to size by sprawl or the general smallness of things; when it seems like we ruin space like a child plucking a flower; when blood, shit and targeted ads have you down; when the most that any of us can reasonably expect to leave behind is our garbage; and when almost no one is suggesting that our situation is redeemable. It’s true that the sublime isn’t packed into the pores of culture. I suspect that microplastics are packed into the pores of culture. And yet, there’s still hope for the sublime. A little anticipation, which motivates the shifting from high to low in the first place, may be unjustified. It also seems to me fairly democratic. We continue to turn to art not to confirm what’s already the case, but to hope, rather, to recognize and strengthen a moon-feeling that’s rarely authorized by experience or theory.
Count Panza visited the Crater in response to a letter from Turrell in 1989. Turrell was asking for money. Panza was pleased. The place, he thought, could offer “the best education giving a real hope in front of the Greatest Reality.” On behalf of the Crater, and in response to the question of its spirituality, Turrell has something more modest to offer. I think he thinks of the Crater as a kind of gift. “Art is something special,” he says. “Art is human beings trying to do something for other human beings that is super-special.”
Art credits: Dale Nations, Roden Crater and Painted Desert, Arizona Geological Survey, 2015 (CC BY 2.0); Alec Soth, USA. Arizona. James Turrell, creator of the Roden Crater, 2018. © Alec Soth / Magnum Photos.