An Artist Hollowed Out a Volcano and Turned It Into One Big Art Piece

This celestial observatory is a vivid ultralight dream.

Machu Picchu and Petra are all world wonders for a reason–humans don't typically spend decades transforming geography into art (except in South Dakota... it’s kind of their thing). But there is a modern exception: James Turrell’s Roden Crater.

The California-born artist has spent the last four decades carving a celestial observatory and light exhibition out of a 400,000-year-old extinct volcano. When Turrell’s done with it, visitors will be able to gaze up at the sky from inside the crater and meander through trippy tunnels and rooms illuminated entirely by light from the sun, moon, and stars, depending on when you visit. But it isn’t finished––completion has been pushed back again and again—so we’re left to dream what a visit might be like. From what we can already tell, the piece is truly a wonder.

Don’t just take it from us. Roden Crater’s biggest fan happens to be Kanye West.

In the mid-1970s, Turrell had already made a name for himself as a leading Light and Space artist—a movement from the ‘60s that played with natural or obscured light and settings to challenge perception. Some compared his first major work, 1967’s Afrum I (White)—which used high-intensity projectors to create the perception of a cube of light—to painting or sculpting.

For his next project, Turrell wanted to go big—bigger than anyone had ever gone before. So with a grant from The Guggenheim Museum in tow, he spent seven months flying around the U.S. in search of somewhere to put it. The thing was, Turrell wasn’t looking for a museum or even an auditorium: he wanted to shine freaking light beams into a volcano (cue Dr. Evil’s pinky). And not just any volcano. He wanted one that was a particular height, had a bowl shape that rose above the terrain, and was in a remote setting far from modern civilization. Turrell eventually found it at Roden Crater, a three-mile-wide volcanic cinder cone in Northern Arizona’s Painted Desert. 

"I do like a place that has a powerful quality,” Turrell said in an interview with Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “What is that quality? I'm not sure, but Roden Crater has that.”

The Roden Crater sits unassumingly in the Arizona hills. | The Washington Post / Contributor / getty images

Turrell bought the land in 1977 and began moving 1.3 million cubic yards of earth out of the crater. He then got to work carving out tunnels and apertures, or viewing holes, that illuminate the halls without the use of artificial light. But Turrell didn’t intend for the rooms to be for simple stargazing. Instead, he wanted to construct an exhibition that would force us to not just learn about the bizarre way we perceive the world around us, but to actually experience its surreality. 

For instance, if you were to walk through Roden Crater’s keyhole-shaped Alpha Tunnel toward the giant sky-facing circle above Crater’s Eye, you’d be actually strolling through a life-sized refractor telescope while looking at the sky through a pinhole camera, or Camera Obscura. Once you got to the end, you’d notice that the hole isn’t really a circle, but rather an oval-shaped ellipse. The point is to demonstrate a geometrical trick: If you look at an ellipse at a certain angle, it appears like a circle. 

“It’s one thing to know the math,” Turrell told Smithsonian in 2003, “but I want you to feel the shape change as a real, physical experience.”

And that’s just the tip of the volcano. Turrell is planning an underground network of 24 different viewing spaces, including an amphitheatre and six tunnels. There will also be a restaurant, visitor’s center, cabins, light-reflecting pools, and a “light spa” where you’ll be able to dive under a barrier and emerge outside with a stellar vista across the horizon, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Turrell initially planned work to be finished and Roden Crater to be open to the public way back in the 1990s, but he extended his deadline while continuing to work on other projects seen at exhibits and museums around the world. Beyond the astronomical costs, Roden Crater paid another price: “People often ask me how much this crater costs,” Turrell said in a 2001 interview with Art21. “It cost me two marriages and a relationship.”

In 2015, Turrell opened Roden Crater to a limited number of people – 80 spread out over four days. But the price of admission was $6,500 per person. Since then, Turrell has reserved visits to the site for his friends and, according to Wide Walls, people who’ve visited all of his other exhibits in 23 countries.

Among those guests was Kanye West, who became obsessed with Turrell when he visited his Japanese Naoshima “art island” exhibit in 2016. Yeezy managed to score a visit to Roden Crater on his birthday in June 2019, and shot the IMAX short film, Jesus is King. While there, West told GQ he received plans for a house: “Turrell designed an entire home and gave it to me on my birthday.”

West’s visit—and the $10 million he donated to the project—has created some momentum for Turrell to actually finish the project. Arizona State University promised to raise $200 million for Roden Crater and online gaming billionaire Mark Pincus held an exclusive West Hollywood party in early 2020 DJ’d by Grimes and hosted by Leonardo DiCaprio, where he pledged $3 million. At the time, Turrell told The Los Angeles Times he now expects Roden Crater to be open within five years.

When it does finally open, Roden Crater is about an hour’s drive from Flagstaff. And, hopefully, witnessing it will not come with the prerequisite of Yeezy wealth.

Joel Balsam is a freelance journalist and travel guidebook writer whose work can be found in National Geographic Travel, Time, The Guardian, Lonely Planet, and Travel + Leisure. Follow him @joelbalsam.
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