Letting in the light - type

ASU's partnership with artist James Turrell on Roden Crater leads to thought-provoking artwork

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One of the most important large-scale artworks in the world sits in the desert of northern Arizona, where artist James Turrell has spent decades shaping the landscape into an immersive observatory.

His creation, Roden Crater, is a masterwork of light and perception inside a dormant volcano, now only seen by a few hundred people every year.

A new and innovative partnership between Turrell and Arizona State University that launched this year will help complete the artist’s magnum opus on the edge of the Painted Desert, making it accessible to many more people and developing an academic component for Turrell to share his artistic vision and inspire transdisciplinary approaches to creativity.

Turrell’s work at Roden Crater is a fusion of art, engineering, astronomy, architecture and neuroscience, and that approach is a natural fit with ASU, according to Steven J. Tepper, dean and director of the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts.

“This one project is one of the best examples of an interdisciplinary exploration that we have,” he said. “It’s a remarkable artistic and aesthetic expression, a remarkable feat of engineering, a remarkably reflective and contemplative space in a world that seems to be very hurried. It takes you out of your normal routine and puts you into a transformational space to experience the world.”

This past year, 60 ASU students were able to visit and study the artwork as part of Herberger Institute field lab classes. 

Many of the students described the experience as transformative and overwhelming, and it inspired them to create an amazing array of art, which they displayed at a showcase at the end of the spring semester.  

“My experience at the crater was tough to put into words, and that’s the constant struggle we’ve all been having,” said Celina Osuna, a graduate student in English. “It was a shared group experience and yet so highly individualized.”

The students’ artwork included videos, sound installations, performance, photography, literature, paintings and textile art. Some wrote poetry about volcanic deities or imagined Star Trek episodes. One class got up at 4:30 a.m. during their visit to photograph dawn breaking near the crater. 

Many of the showcase exhibits were interactive. Visitors could crawl into an inflatable dome and view a 360-degree film projected on the ceiling. The immersive film and sound experience explored James Turrell’s art on the ASU campus as well as sites in Northern Arizona near Roden Crater. Brandi Cooper, a graduate student in the School of Art, invited participants to make “seed bombs” out of mud, water and seeds to draw attention to the environmental impact of Roden Crater. Students in the “Indigenous Stories and Sky Science” course put up a black tent outside with Navajo constellations in the ceiling.

The five field lab classes included immersive coursework with visiting experts. Students studied sacred architecture and indigenous astronomy, learned about color from a theoretical astrophysicist and had a workshop on the sense of taste. One student built a sensory-deprivation chamber to better understand perception. 

But the centerpiece of all five courses was the visit to Roden Crater, with the classes taking the trips at different times. 

“…nothing can supplant the experience of being there. It shows the importance of place and scale and how that can affect so many of us from different disciplines.”

Celina Osuna, graduate student, literature

“I had been working on ideas of perception and studying James Turrell,” Osuna said. “I was reading the books, looking at the photos and seeing all the videos, and nothing can supplant the experience of being there. It shows the importance of place and scale and how that can affect so many of us from different disciplines.”

Eliza Weber, a Master of Fine Arts student in ceramics, created a 9-foot-by-9-foot installation on the sidewalk made entirely of wispy yellow palo verde blossoms called “At our feet, above our heads.” She visited Roden Crater in February with the “Art and Sensory Acuity” class.

“Turrell’s pieces are about experience and I’m an object maker,” she said. “But an object felt strange to me for this. So for this, the process is the piece rather than the object, which is ephemeral.”

One installation at Roden Crater is a 900-foot-long tunnel that acts as a pinhole camera, which Weber found profoundly moving.

“The tunnel was almost a life-and-death phenomenon,” she said. “It’s this interesting way of walking toward the light where it’s, ‘Are you going to life or to death?’”

Wanda Dalla Costa taught the “Indigenous Stories and Sky Science” course and took her class on a five-day trip to visit indigenous sites in northern Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado. Dalla Costa, an architect, is an Institute Professor in the Herberger Institute, associate professor in the School of Construction and a member of the Saddle Lake First Nation in Alberta, Canada.

“We took a journey before the crater to set up the contextual space,” she said. “This is a deep space and it has a lot of deep history. There were a lot of other subjects that we had to understand.”

The students visited ancient indigenous structures aligned to the solstice and Hopi petroglyphs. 

“We had to study boundaries. What part of this story is ours to tell?” she said. “It was a much different experience for us by the time we arrived at the crater.”

Selina Martinez, who is pursuing a master’s degree in architecture and is a member of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe, was in Dalla Costa’s class.

“The biggest thing I learned is that there are so many other stories that exist there. There are other perspectives and the individual experience we got at the crater was amazing, but there was a collective experience we had as a group that gives you the community side,” she said.

Turrell attended the showcase and participated in a moderated discussion with Ed Krupp, an astronomer and the director of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles. 

“I got into in psychology because in art classes if you took blue paint and yellow and mixed them you got green but if your took blue light and yellow light you got white light, which is a surprise. It was very important to understand the psychology of perception,” Turrell said.

Krupp said that both men were drawn to astronomy, which seeks to find meaning.

“We want all of our classes to achieve that sense of wonder at the possibilities.”

Steven J. Tepper, dean and director, Herberger Institute

Copyright James Turrell/Photos by Klaus Obermeyer.

“The facts lead to understanding of a greater picture of the cosmos, and that’s the purpose of doing astronomy. It’s not to create a stamp collection of what is out there but to understand how in the world all of this is working together,” he said.

Ed Finn, founding director of the Center for Science and the Imagination and an associate professor with a joint appointment in the School of Arts, Media and Engineering and the Department of English, taught the “Approaches to Light” course.

“Classes like this are why I came to ASU,” he said. “Light is so fundamental to our experience. Civilization is a story of our manipulation of light from fire all the way to lasers.

“The challenge for students was to figure out what to do with this overwhelming topic.”

Stephanie Gonzalez, a graduate student in the School of Art, said that Roden Crater made her question the notion of art.

“I came back and went into my studio and looked at my work. I wondered what I could do with my practice to reshape the question of what art can be.”

The true experience the students visiting Roden Crater get is not so much the earth, the structures or the architectural interventions Turrell has created inside, according to Olga Viso, a senior adviser to Tepper who is the liaison between ASU and the Skystone Foundation, a nonprofit that raises money and operates Roden Crater. 

“As James likes to say, the work is really about you seeing yourself seeing,” she said.

The field labs were pilot courses as part of a year-long planning process, which was led by Tepper. The goal is to build on these experiences and work with Turrell on both completing his work and developing one-of-a-kind immersive learning opportunities for students.

“For us, we were thinking of Roden Crater as an extraordinary learning laboratory like none that has ever existed,” Tepper said at the showcase. “What would it look like to build a learning enterprise around a singular, masterful work of art and how could that drive generations of future learners and scholars to think and create in response to this?

“We want all of our classes to achieve that sense of wonder at the possibilities.”

Photos credits in order of appearance: Laura Segall, Florian Holzherr, Charlie Leight, Klaus Obermeyer (Copyright James Turrell)
Video by Klaus Obermeyer/ Rocket.film.