Friday, May 25, 2012

Pete's Pantheon: James Turrell, The Sky is the Limit

Somewhere in a secret location outside of Flagstaff, Arizona, artist James Turrell is collecting the ancient light of distant stars in a dusty crater. Turrell has always been intrigued with light, and now it is his artistic medium. His crater is a project he has been working on since 1974. This would drive most of us mad, but not Turrell. He takes the long view. After all, he is working with starlight, a medium that has crossed the Universe.

Turrell didn't start out to be an artist. His past is jumbled with stories of flying missions for the CIA, and how later he was arrested by the FBI and imprisoned for advising young men how to avoid the Viet Nam War. It's safe to say he is the only cowboy-rancher-pilot-international-art- star who financed many of his projects with money that he made meticulously restoring vintage aircraft. (Some of which, Alaskans will be thrilled to know, he flew North to customers here in our state. A bit of personal history related at a lecture that he gave years ago at the Anchorage Museum.)

He found the crater from an airplane after a long search for what he had in mind. Now, with the help of several foundations and a MacArthur grant, the grand plan, perpetually in a state of readiness "to open in a few years" is coming along.

And what is the grand plan? Sculpting the crater with bulldozers, Turrell is forming a sort of naked eye observatory, where light, or more accurately, our perception of it, will be shaped and manipulated in ways that are subtle or spectacular. It's a vision along the lines of monumental works that ancient people have left around the world that are keyed into the movement of the Sun and Moon. It is powerfully attractive in its linking of the cosmic and terrestrial, art and science, past and present.

As such, it has vast potential to attract every hippie-dippy, day-glo, tie-dyed, patchouli-stinkin', Burning Man moonchild in the known Universe. Surely Turrell has thought of this. Which makes me suspect that perhaps the grand plan is never to open it until after such a circus is safely out of the question. Just to quietly let it fade into obscurity to be found by some curious observant soul from a future civilization who will notice the crater's too-perfect form and slowly unlock some, but not all, of the mysteries hidden in its many chambers. At which, there will be great frustration. And greater wonder.

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