Interview with James Turrell
EGG: How did light become your medium as well as the subject of your art?
JT: I was really interested in light. I was trying to find out what to do with it, how to present it, what place in the culture to bring it out. It was a little bit difficult. We teach the color wheel, but we really should speak about the light frequencies of each eye, and then the context of vision in which they reach the eye, because that's how we perceive. So I studied perceptual psychology and the psychology of official perception. And that was a way I came to this and then took this into the art world.
EGG: Did you reach this conclusion through more traditional media, like painting or sculpture?
JT: I haven't had anything to do with either sculpture or painting. I have done works that look painted or works that have form and look like sculpture. I make these spaces that apprehend light for your perception. In a way, it's like Plato's cave, where we are sitting in the cave looking at the reflection of reality with our backs to reality. I make these spaces where the spaces themselves are perceivers or in some way pre-form perception. It's a little bit like what the eye does. I mean, I look at the eye as the most exposed part of the brain, as something that is already forming perception. I make these rooms that are these camera-like spaces that in some way form light, apprehend it to be something that's physically present.
EGG: What happens when you use space this way?
JT: This results in an art that is not about my seeing, it's about your direct perception of the work. I'm interested in having a light that inhabits space, so that you feel light to be physically present. I mean, light is a substance that is, in fact, a thing, but we don't attribute thing-ness to it. We use light to illuminate other things, something we read, sculpture, paintings. And it gladly does this. But the most interesting thing to find is that light is aware that we are looking at it, so that it behaves differently when we are watching it and when we're not, which imbues it with consciousness. Often people say that they want to touch some of the work I do. Well, that feeling is actually coming from the fact that the eyes are touching, the eyes are feeling. And this happens because the eyes are quite sensitive only in low light, for which we were made. We're actually made for this light of Plato's cave, the light of twilight.
EGG: How does light relate to space?
JT: Through light, space can be formed without physical material like concrete or steel. We can actually stop vision and the penetration of vision with where light is and where it isn't. Like the atmosphere, we can't see through it to the stars that are there during the day. But as soon as that light is dimmed around the self, then this penetration of vision goes out. So I'm very interested in this feeling, using the eyes to penetrate the space. In the piece "Sky Space," a daylight space brings the sky down to the top of the room. This idea that the sky actually comes down right on top of us and that we're at the bottom of this ocean of air is a feeling that I like to create. I do a lot of building first to make these spaces that hold and contain this fragile material. As in "Sky Space" at P.S. 1, it's strange because this is New York, where you don't usually see the sky like that. But then you come in and hear the sky -- and this is New York sky -- and it's terrific. You know, it's beautiful. New York sky is beautiful.
EGG: How did you develop this method of working?
JT: I started with projection works. I worked with shadow space constructions. In the Aperture works, the space you looked in worked like the picture plane. I could make this space come up and seem to stop in air. I had some trouble at the Whitney Museum, where I did that floor-to-ceiling and some people leaned against it and just fell over. And so, I've had some places where this seemingly very benign work has had some problems with people who weren't really looking. And I certainly worked a lot to achieve that and to have that kind of situation occur. I'm not trying to fool anybody in that sense. I'm trying to make something that is convincingly real. Like, if you're on stage with very bright footlights, you look out, but you cannot see the audience. So you're in a space that's the same architectural physical space as the audience, but you're in a different visual space.
EGG: What about your large-scale outdoor works?
JT: When I work on pieces like the crater, I'm working on bringing the cosmos to you. In the same way the sky is brought down to your space, I actually can bring light from outside this galaxy. This idea of bringing the cosmos to you, this idea that you could actually stand and be confronted by a space occupied with a light that's older than our solar system -- that's interesting to me. It makes the cosmos personally accessible and makes it part of our sense of territory. If you light the night sky, like cities do, it cuts off vision to the universe, and the space which we consciously inhabit is decreased. With the crater, you go out there in this huge area of southwestern space, but it makes this part of it yours and yours alone.
EGG: But Roden Crater is immense and in a desert. Shouldn't art be physically accessible?
JT: I'm interested in taking this cultural artifice we call art out into the natural surrounding. To think that we are in any way apart from nature is our greatest conceit. I have seen us take from nature and bring it to the context of high art in the city. I'm interested in taking that context out into nature. This is not a new idea. You see this in many places with the arts of many cultures, such as Egypt, which inform this work.
EGG: That said, could this project be too ambitious?
JT: I have more ambition for art than that it be something that just goes up in an elevator and into an East Side apartment. This is a time when America's never been wealthier. And what are we doing? We're taking back funding for the arts and everyone is going along with it, of reducing this funding, of reducing this idea of this culture making its art. So I'm trying to do what I feel I should do as an artist. It's not that size is everything because, you know, a haiku poem is just as profound as the Pyramids. But it's important that we have all those possibilities. For example, in 1974, I got a Guggenheim grant that I spent looking for this site to do this kind of work. I flew for seven months and spent all the money of this Guggenheim just flying and doing this search. I found this crater, and it was the site I wanted the most.
EGG: How did you gain access to the land?
JT: I was very encouraged because it was privately owned. It is on the western edge of the Painted Desert in the San Francisco Peaks volcanic field of northern Arizona, near Flagstaff. There are about 400 volcanic hills here, 400 cinder cones. And so this is one of them. It's a modest volcano. But it's one thing to plan this out on aerial photos and maps and make drawings, and it's another thing to actually begin working on something of this volume and size. I purchased an option to buy the crater and then looked for the money, which came from the Dia Foundation with Heiner Friedrich and Phillipa de Menil. The purchase was actually made in '79. It took about three years to buy it. The base of the crater is over two miles wide, so it's wider than Manhattan, about as high as the Chrysler Building. It's bigger than a breadbox.
EGG: Why did you choose this site?
JT: I looked for a space that was at least 400 to 600 feet above the surface of the earth, because at that point when you fly or when you stand on a mouth that's above a plane, the earth seems to curve the wrong way. I wanted to make this experience of sky and the celestial vaulting. Then when you went up to the edge, you were in the space that seemed to be curving overhead. But then you saw this reverse curving underneath you. Vaulting is actually an art history term. Celestial vaulting is a term that refers to how the sky was depicted. You notice sometimes children will paint the sky in a curve. They're correct in the sense that we do see shaping to the sky. That means that there are conditions that change that if we change us, or if I change you, I can change that context or shaping. So that this form is something that we give it. We're not in any way aware that we give the sky its color and that we give it its shape. But we do. In fact, as you move around in the crater, the shape of the sky will change. It does empower you, in fact, that you are fully a part of that, and it's a great feeling. That isn't true of all the work I do.
EGG: How does Roden Crater differ from other art?
JT: It doesn't have this idea of image. The content is very different than literal content -- dealing with the power of vision. One thing about light and one reason I use it is we have a primal collection with it. You know, you absorb it through the skin, and it has vitamin D. It is powerful in counteracting some of the moods that happen in winter, when people get depression from the lack of light. Now, we don't need to take whiskey and Prozac to counteract this kind of depression. You just need a little light. It also has this other primal connection like fire has. I mean, we tend to stare into the fire in a not-thinking state, not thinking in words. And this kind of glazed-eye looking into light is not any different than the deer that looks into the headlights before it's hit by the car. I want to use that quality -- work that is light, as opposed to being about light.
EGG: How does this kind of work fit into traditional art history?
JT: The history of Western painting has a great deal to do with light and light qualities. Light on a cathedral, like Monet's painting in the Impressionist period: there you take an object that has no meaning whatsoever, like a haystack; it's all that's required, just this idea of the haystack. Or Rothko, where the light seems to come out of the surface, out of the paint, where it seems to be a source of light. I'm very American, very direct. I don't want something to be about light, I just want to use light. I want light itself. So I don't want it in a glass or in a scrim, I just want to have light seem to be physically present and have its presence be there. I'm trying to deal with cosmic issues without having to move the cosmos, with moving as little physical material as possible. This is what I deal with. These are my kind of materials. People who speak about the cosmos in terms of poetry or writing have the same scale. I know that people want to say this is a big project. It's big for me. But this is one person doing a project. We're not putting a culture behind this, like when we went to the moon. That's an event that ranked with the Pyramids.
EGG: How does your sense of space relate to outer space?
JT: There's one photo I have of the crater where you see a large amount around it. And the amazing thing is it looks like you're looking at a planet. Well, you are. [Laughs.] But we don't seem to see it that way. I mean, [to view our own planet] we had to go into space, go to a lesser satellite, the moon. We're not in space on this planet. I mean, we don't feel ourselves to be in space, which is an amazing deficiency. So there are ways that we can think about these things and have changes in how we form our reality.
EGG: Are there parallels between art and science in terms of these issues?
JT: I always felt that art was more interested in posing the question than it was in getting the answer, but I've come to more recently think that art is the answer. In science, you set up this premise, then you test it and see if it stood up. This process brings you to places that were previously mere belief. But belief often leads us, and this is even true with the scientists, to go after certain areas. Also, we now know that belief has an effect on the result. Very interesting. So that sometimes we begin to find what we're looking for by virtue of searching for it. And this is an odd idea. But it's certainly one that I think arts have been very much involved with. The arts have this tremendous optimism and belief. I mean, you have to be an optimist to be an artist. But then, of course, artists are some of the most cynical people you can imagine. So there is this great irony in cynical people being involved in areas of great belief. And it's something I love. I love the irony, and I enjoy it, and as I said, I never thought that artists were so much looking for answers as they were just posing questions. I can't think of a more hopeful act than to be an artist. To decide to be an artist is a very hopeful act.