Kanye West’s Jesus Is King movie is hitting theaters October 25 and is set to be an inevitable spectacle for Yeezus devotees. But even for those who’ve grown tired of Kanye in the last several years – whether that’s due to his Donald Trump cosigns or his burgeoning enthusiasm for gospel music – this may just be too momentous an occasion to ignore because of where it was filmed: James Turrell’s Roden Crater.
The footage might give the world its best look at Turrell’s ambitious, literally earth-moving project, which has been in the works for nearly half a century. The Roden Crater is, without hyperbole, one of the most anticipated pieces of art in history. It’s unprecedented in scale and sure to be the pinnacle of Turrell’s career, even though he started working on it before becoming one of the world’s most renowned artists.
Turrell has made his name working with light and space, creating immersive installations that alter the viewer’s perspective. He’s built Skyspaces across the world since the 1970s; the enclosed spaces frame the sky within an aperture in the roof and challenge viewers to focus on natural phenomena. New York Times art critic Jori Finkel referred to them as a “celestial viewing room designed to create the rather magical illusion that the sky is within reach — stretched like a canvas across an opening in the ceiling.”
In that regard, the Roden Crater will be his greatest Skyspace of all. In anticipation of its informal viewing experience, we’ve put together a primer on the monumental work of art.
The Roden Crater is a 380,000-year-old extinct volcano in the southwest edge of the Painted Desert in Northern Arizona. It’s 2.5 miles wide and rises 470 feet above the surrounding landscape, with a total elevation of 5,433 feet.
Using a grant of $10,000 from the Guggenheim, Turrell scoured buttes and extinct volcanoes west of the Rocky Mountains to find a place for his grand work of art. He finally discovered the perfect spot while piloting a single-engine plane in 1974. After landing near the base of the Roden Crater, he hiked up and spent a night inside the bowl in a sleeping bag. He acquired the site three years later.
Construction (and Many Delays)
The initial phase of construction moved more than 1.3 million cubic yards of earth to reshape the bowl for optimal viewing of the sky above; excavation of the tunnels and chambers didn’t begin until the ’90s. Once completed, there will be 21 viewing spaces and six tunnels inside the crater. A restaurant, a visitor’s center, cabins, and a light spa will occupy some of the surrounding area.
After early reports indicated that the Roden Crater would be completed in the late 1980s, the date was pushed back multiple times, for both artistic and financial reasons – 2011 was once set as the opening date, but construction halted for nearly a decade during the recession. After construction picked back up three years ago, a 2024 opening was announced. And this time, it actually feels real.
Kanye West Is Among Many Donors
Initial funding for construction came from Dia (the art foundation behind Dia:Beacon), Italian Count Giuseppe Panza di Biumo, and the Lannan Foundation. LACMA and Arizona State University are behind the recent surge, with the latter making an initial $1.8 million pledge and helping Turrell raise the estimated $200 million still needed for completion. After news of the ASU partnership broke, Kanye West put a dent in the remaining total with a $10 million donation.
An enormous amount of Turrell’s own money has gone into the project itself, alongside scooping up the surrounding land. He even sold his apartment in New York City’s Gramercy Park in 2014 to secure 16,000 acres of land. Part of that land includes his Walking Cane Ranch, which raises cattle for additional funding.
The 21 viewing spaces achieve different effects, and only a few have been confirmed so far. There’s the Alpha (East) Tunnel, seen in the Jesus Is King poster, which is lined with low lights for about 900 feet leading up to the East Portal. Before you reach its end, the tunnel contains a lens that projects sunsets, moonsets and other celestial events onto an “image stone” made of marble. The northernmost and southernmost moons will take turns appearing on the image stone every 9.3 years, due to a cycle called the Major Lunar Standstill, which is expected to last 2,000 years. Acoustics inside the tunnel also make voices sound flat halfway through it.
The lead-up to the East Portal makes the aperture look like a perfect circle, but once inside, you can see it’s actually an ellipse. A stairwell leads up to the hole and back down to the crater’s surface.
At the center lies the Crater’s Eye, one of Turrell’s largest Skyspaces, described as an “acoustic marvel” and lined with bench seating. It’s possible that this is the echo chamber referred to by The New York Times in a 2007 article, in which a visitor said that the echo chamber brings noises in from the outside and is sensitive enough to pick up the rustling of an insect. It is confirmed, however, that the Crater’s Eye is surrounded by four stones on the crater’s surface that visitors lie down on upside down for a 360-degree view of the sky. Turrell described it as a “phenomenon where we perceive the sky as a closely fitted vault covering us from horizon to horizon rather than a limitless void extending into space.”
Several water-filled chambers are planned, with one that reflects every sunrise. Another space will allow visitors to see their shadow from the light of Jupiter. Plans for the South Space and North Spaces appear to show a lens that projects to a seat in the former, and a hole cut out for another seat in the latter. The amphitheater is set to feature a Skyspace over the stage.
All of this information still leaves a lot unknown, which makes Jesus Is King – let alone the 2024 opening – all the more exciting.