James Turrell, Roden Crater, Lisa Sette Gallery (1994)

Scottsdale, Arizona



 Apparently, James Turrell is attempting a mating of the mystical, scientific and artistic in a man-made structure intended to bond us more directly with the stars and cosmic forces. But, looking at Turrell's plans (Lisa Sette Gallery, Scottsdale), it seems science, technology and abstract concepts are the dominating motifs of his project in ancient, meteor-created Roden Crater near Flagstaff in northern Arizona.


 These black and silver gallery works, despite suggesting earthly star maps of a sort, are impersonal architectural renderings more than art, schematic diagrams of installations superimposed on aerial photographs. As such, they are more related to telephone circuit diagrams or water pipeline plans for Phoenix and Scottsdale. A computer might have made them. When we think of the cosmos, the universe, the sun, moon and stars, we enter the realm of poetry -- if there is poetry in us. We wonder at incredibly vast distances, time, the explosive, burning force and divinity of light, and our human fate in such a stupefying situation.


 Turrell may feel all of this. How could he not, living and working out in the vast space and light and night at Roden Crater? But he doesn't express poetry or the mystery. Instead he gives us concepts, mechanisms and technologies unsupported by any "art" in his graphic works (including his weakly-drawn abstractions of light in the rear gallery). Is this project yet another example of the current confusion of technology with art? Is it more intellectual "concept" than passionate, human creative realization?


 If Roden Crater was simply considered an engineering project, not art with a grandiose conception of enhanced human enlightenment, it would be less pretentious, easier to accept. But its mystical aura, contradicted by technically-oriented gallery works without particular artistic distinction, makes us wonder what it really is.


 Another disturbing aspect is its interference with a unique and spectacular natural site and its ecology, the way developers insensitively force their will on the land; the way Christo and so-called environmental artists, with arrogance, with hubris, seek to dominate and "improve" nature by their often simplistic, intrusive works.


 Will we feel, when moving through and experiencing the completed Roden Crater project, that we are in the presence of a great, life-enhancing achievement of the human spirit, or just another arid, mechanistic environment, the result of intellect made sterile by fashionable theory and continuing alienation from the heart?


 Let us hope it is the former.


Copyright by Don Gray


Don Gray Art  •  Art Essays & Art Criticisms