IN THE MIDDLE of the Painted Desert of northern Arizona lies the perfectly round crater of a dormant volcano, which for the last thirty years has been slowly shaped and formed to become one of the 21st century’s most ambitious works of art. While not widely known to the general public, James Turrell is recognised by art critics as one of the world’s greatest living artists. He is transforming Roden Crater into a celestial observatory, creating a perfect hemispherical dish inside the crater rim and constructing underground chambers and an underground passage from which you emerge into the crater bowl with a skyscape of stars above.

Born in Los Angeles in 1943, Turrell studied experimental psychology at Pomona College, but decided to pursue art at graduate school. Soon after graduating he started making lightworks that challenged the normal perceptual notion of light, so the viewer experienced it as an actual physical substance. In 1969, Turrell collaborated with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on its Art & Technology programme, with artist Robert Irwin and Dr Edward Wortz, a physiological psychologist.

One of the most interesting and challenging projects they worked on was to produce a Ganzfeld: a visual field in which there are no objects you can take hold of with your eye. You sit under a small hemisphere that is completely filled with light, in such a way that the light appears to have substance. This and other experiments carried out by the Art & Technology programme continued to influence Turrell for a long time afterwards. Turrell said, “I’m very interested in the limits of perception and working with those limits … also in learned limits. We’ve learned to perceive … uniquely in this culture and differently from other cultures; prejudiced perception.” He emphasised that he did not intend to demystify the experiences he presented, but rather to challenge viewers to alight at their own conclusions.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Turrell continued to use light to create a series of beautiful and eerie installations, where light became a physical object, defined by division of spaces. The impossibility of capturing his works in a photograph and the importance of direct experience are integral to his philosophy: “Light is a powerful substance. We have a primal connection to it. But, for something so powerful, situations for its felt presence are fragile. I form it as much as the material allows.”

TURRELL CAME FROM a Quaker family and sees a direct connection between his work and the Quaker philosophy of worship: ‘going inside to greet the light’. He sees the importance of looking to art to find the spiritual dimension to life. “I’m fond of light not seen with the eyes; like when you dream – richer colours, greater resolution. The physicality of light, the emotional impact. You can feel the colour coming down on you. The grace of light.” Turrell’s Quaker faith and encounters with other faiths – a qualified pilot, at one time he flew Tibetan monks out of Tibet – gave him the sense of vision fully formed with the eyes closed, the vision of a lucid dream.

We often dismiss dreams as unreal episodes or night-time ‘waste thoughts’, tumbling out of our over-filled brains onto the pillow. However, for centuries dreams have been a central part of many cultures’ everyday realities. Waking dreams, brought on by incubation, physical hardship or hallucinogenic substances – mescal, for example – have also been the focus of religious experience, and often seem to involve coloured light not dissimilar from Turrell’s artworks.

The following passages are by Shamsoddin Lahiji, a 15th-century Sufi, explaining the spiritual dream in Islamic tradition:

“When awakened dreamers begin to explore this non-material world, they often find themselves bathed in a bright light. At first, this light appears to be coloured, but after a long period of spiritual development the dreamer’s perception alters to an experience of pure white light.”

“I saw myself present in the world of light. Mountains and deserts were a rainbow of coloured light, red, yellow, white, blue … Suddenly I saw that black light had enveloped the entire universe … rays of light joined in me and rapidly pulled the whole of my being upward.”

If we accept that we all hold this inner world, the subconscious, which we may visit in our dreams or occasionally see when awake, it holds that we all have the potential to experience this sense of light. Many artists who use the medium of light share a desire to provoke subconscious or conscious changes in perception of the viewer, but Turrell recognises the spiritual in such seeing more directly. He enables viewers, by making them perceive their own perception, to begin to become more fully aware of how they look.

In ‘Rise’, Turrell’s installation for the Colour After Klein exhibition at the Barbican (London) last year, the visitor is greeted with a subtly changing light which escapes from the edges of a block seemingly suspended in space. The entire space glows, and feels other-worldly, but it is by really stopping, sitting and watching the incredibly slow change which takes place that the visitor engages with the work, and in a sense with Turrell’s intention.

In our fast-food, quick-fix, high-adrenalin society we are not used to a complete standstill, a complete absorption of the senses in one experience which subsumes our everyday thoughts.

THERE IS A growing movement of artists and writers who see a return to spirituality as a vital basis for social and environmental awareness, and therefore for change in our global systems. Suzi Gablik writes: “Since the enlightenment, our view of what is real has been organised around the hegemony of a technological and materialistic world view ... The visionary function, which fulfils the soul’s need for placing itself in the vast scheme of things, has been suppressed, with the result that as a culture we have lost the gift of vision.”

Because we do not perceive deeply, we are not aware of the wholeness of ourselves, and our place in the world; we see ourselves as separate and distinct. With lack of meaning, without ‘a living mythology’, our culture gets addicted to whatever numbs that vacuum.

Turrell’s Roden Crater provides a mythology, for not only is it offering a reconnection to the stars, but it is also in itself a pilgrimage: not merely a bus ride to the art gallery, but a journey through the desert. ‘Rise’ is also a pilgrimage, this time to a place of calm and silent perception in the midst of frenetic city life.

As we become increasingly urbanised as a population, Turrell’s works demand that we look at nature, really look, and notice the changes in the colour of the sky or the pattern of the stars.


We all have the potential to experience this sense of light.

In our fast-food, quick-fix, high-adrenalin society we are not used to a complete standstill, a complete absorption of the senses in one experience which subsumes our ordinary, everyday thoughts.

Without ‘a living mythology’, our culture gets addicted to whatever numbs that vacuum.