James Turrell’s Roden Crater


Site plan of Roden Crater

Although I only learned about the Roden Crater a few weeks ago, this large earthwork has been installation and land artist James Turrell‘s major project since 1974.  His works typically include creating spaces and sensory experiences through an almost tactile manipulation of artificial and natural light. The Roden Crater, an extinct volcano near Flagstaff, Arizona, is being subtly reshaped and fitted with underground tunnels and rooms, some carved with “skyscapes” (openings that frame and seem to shape the sky). This ambitious project is still under construction, and few people have seen it outside models, drawings, and photographs. Turrell has stated that he wants to link visitors with the celestial movements of planets, stars, and distant galaxies, saying: “In this stage set of geologic time, I wanted to make spaces that engage with celestial events in light so that the spaces performed a ‘music of the spheres’ in light.” A lot could be said about this project, but I’m particularly struck by the way the site as a whole resembles an eye.


Roden Crater

The artist has also said: “Roden Crater has knowledge in it and it does something with that knowledge. Environmental events occur; a space lights up. Something happens in there, for a moment, or for a time. It is an eye, something that is in itself perceiving.” With the latter comment in mind, I think it is fascinating to consider how light and knowledge are connected to the eye and the gaze. The crater is in part a naked-eye observatory, on a scale that puts it in dialogue with the heavens even as it reverses the traditional gaze of the all-seeing eye of the Judeo-Christian God who looks down on earth. In art history, this notion has been represented by a tradition of God as a disembodied Eye. From the medieval period onward the eye of God was invoked to represent all-seeing divinity and the Holy Trinity. A form of this symbol where the eye is enclosed in a triangle, often called the Eye of Providence, proliferated and was repurposed during the Enlightenment for secular, man-made knowledge. The power of the much-used symbol stems from the privileging of vision and its association with knowledge. Regardless of whether an eye was literally present, the implicit gaze of religious art in both Western and Eastern Orthodox traditions has been a divine, watching one.


Crater’s Eye Plaza

Considering the power structures implicit in the gaze (at the Roden Crater, a man-made and God-like eye on earth staring up to the heavens) is fascinating not just historically but in today’s surveillance-prevalent society. Ancient monuments such as the Incan and Egyptian pyramids, which Turrell cites as an influence, were scaled for a privileged aerial viewpoint that once belonged only to God. Historically this privileged view became accessible to man through maps, which were once valuable luxury items. Now the aerial view is available to society en masse courtesy of Google Maps and Google Views, reinforcing Foucault’s notion of the surveillance society. While Turrell might seem to be creating a monument along ancient lines, contemporary societies’ changed relation to the aerial view complicates this understanding.


East Portalt

While the site itself features tunnels, rooms, viewing stations, and the crater’s eye plaza already, as well as a small guest house nearby, Turrell is still working on the project. He is 71 years old, and it is unclear whether the project will be finished in his own lifetime. Once it is open, visitors will be restricted to small numbers at a time, but I for one would certainly love a chance to walk through and experience this strange modern megalith.


Crater’s Eye


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