“Roden Crater and Autonomous Structures” at PACE Gallery

by Mary L. Coyne

Roden Crater (Sunset),  © James Turrell, courtesy Pace Gallery

Roden Crater (Sunset), © James Turrell, courtesy Pace Gallery

There is an assumption that unmediated experience, even one that is purely perceptual, is an impossibility—the unexplained is almost always preceded by a disclaimer or an exposé; a significant event is heralded by previews and preparations. Explorations of an anticipated future experience are displayed in Roden Crater and Autonomous Structures, which closed April 20th at Pace. The exhibition is composed entirely of plaster models representing James Turrell’s construction at the Roden Crater site in Northern Arizona, supplemented by the artist’s photographs of the seemingly unadulterated crater. Autonomous Structures whets New York’s palette for what is certain to be a blockbuster installation at the Guggenheim in June 2013. Generating renewed interested in the decades-long Roden Crater project, the exhibition satisfies a curious public with formerly unknown features of the remote project.

Autonomous Structures focuses on fifteen architectural components in progress or planned for construction at the Roden Crater. Turrell selected the crater and the surrounding 1,100 acres in 1974 after observing it from the air in his private plane. After securing funds from the Dia Foundation in 1979, Turrell purchased the property from the state of Arizona and began construction. Since then, Turrell’s life’s work has been dedicated to the Roden Crater. He has continually expanded the project and dedicated three Guggenheim grants to funding it. Yet the Roden Crater project remains incomplete—a work in progress after almost forty years—and few outside Turrell and his contractors have physically gained access to his life’s work. For the exhibition at Pace, the gallery commissioned cast models of the astonishing series of structures the artist designed, providing a rare update on the progress in Arizona.

Each structure is presented as a scaled preparatory model. White futuristic building exteriors suggests Martian technology in certain cases, majestic Byzantine houses of worship in others. The models provide little sense of scale apart from a satellite map of the Roden Crater complex in the gallery’s foyer, which provides a provisionary understanding of how the structures fit into the landscape. Half the gallery space is dedicated to similarly scaled models of Turrell’s subterranean chambers, spacious rooms carved into the natural geography of the land connected by a network of tunnels and stairways. For Turrell, the function of these spaces is highly specific. Their purpose lies in enabling the visitor to experience highly precise effects of sun and moonlight through a series of skylights, peepholes, and sky-rooms built in and around the natural crater. Tunnels have been carved through the rock and volcanic material to provide dramatic and illusionistic transformations of light. Turrell’s deliberation and precision can be compared to the Aztec’s attention to the equinox and lunar cycles.

Installation shot, © 2013 Pace Gallery, All Rights Reserved.

Installation shot, © 2013 Pace Gallery, All Rights Reserved.

By detaching the delightfully futuristic structures from their highly specific context, the exhibition turns them on their head. They become, as the title suggests, autonomous structures. The exhibition functions as a didactic introduction to the actual site similar to a visitor center: one can understand the three-dimensionality and architectural significance of the spaces prior to moving through them. The impossibility of any physical encounter with the spaces reduces our appreciation of them to that of the structures’ formal beauty. Detached from their referent, Turrell’s configuration is subjugated by its architectural characteristics rather than its particular sensory power. In the press release, the artist provided his rationale for the exhibition, stressing that “Autonomous Structures are just containers for the light; the art is in the experience of the viewer.”1 The structures serve as hollow reminders of our inability to experience the light as the artist intended. The viewer is isolated from the experience and thus a deeper understanding of the work is opposed by viewing the structures so abstractly.

Installation shot, © 2013 Pace Gallery, All Rights Reserved.

Installation shot, © 2013 Pace Gallery, All Rights Reserved.

An homage to Merleau-Ponty’s visual theory, Turrell’s work consistently activates the interchange between the perceptual experience of light and physical reality of the space in which the experience occurs, specifically the way in which light can be manipulated vis-à-vis space to create illusion. Many of his installations, such as the interior manipulations featured in his 1980 Whitney retrospective, filter light through color. Turrell thus immerses the visitor in an imperceptible and visually impenetrable space, also known as a ganzfeld. As curator Melinda Wortz put it, Turrell’s precise projection and presentation of light allows “the walls to disappear.”2 The visitor’s understanding of his or her own body in relationship to the space and the light’s existence within that space is blurred, allowing a feeling of disorientation and heightened sensory awareness. Similarly Turrell’s structures at Roden Crater, if experienced physically, accentuate acute light effects. The chambers rely on the disorientation of the outside world and surrender to his subterranean viewpoints. The models on display at Pace, in their very function, contradict this fundamental intention.

In discussing Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, Richard Serra argued that photographing the work “denied the temporal experience…you’re not only reducing the sculpture to a different scale for the purposes of consumption, but you’re denying the real content of the work.”3 Serra’s critique of the experience of Spiral Jetty is valid despite the fact that Smithson’s aerial documentation of the work in photography and film arguably heightens its visual impact. Smithson’s work relies in large part on the Great Salt Lake’s unique landscape and is as inextricably tied to the site as Turrell’s work at the Roden Crater. Both works rely on the visitor’s unique experience within the specific geological and geographical place. Yet much of what is going on in Northern Arizona remains somewhat of a mystery, summoning the suspicion surrounding the Calvius Base in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey rather than the open excitement of a contemporary art project in the American Southwest. Visits have been infrequent beyond museum VIP’s such as Michael Govan, and experiences in the space have rarely been shared with the public.4 Reproductions in exhibition catalogues and monographs on the artist’s work allow the art world to feign a familiarity, even speak about the Roden Crater in the context of the artist’s practice, without actually participating in the experience that defines the work itself. Autonomous Structures adds to this faux experience of Turrell’s work. His perceptual experience cannot easily be displayed on a pedestal or sold, and this exhibition supports the perpetual refusal to present and celebrate such intangible, albeit fantastical, intentions.


1. James Turrell quoted in press release for James Turrell: Autonomous Structures (New York: PACE Gallery, 2013).

2. Melinda Wortz, “Introduction,” in James Turrell: Light and Space (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1981), 7-14.

3. Richard Serra quoted in Clara Weyergraf, ed., Richard Serra, Interviews Etc, 1970-1980 (Yonkers, NY: The Hudson River Museum, 1980), 170.

4. In 2008 Jori Finkel critiqued Turrell in a New York Times article for the limitations to his work’s accessibility. “Shh! It’s a Secret Kind of Outside Art,” The New York Times, November 25, 2007, Arts section.




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About Lynn Maliszewski, Contributor-at-Large

Lynn Maliszewski is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, New York. She curated and composed work for ArtWrit, BOMB Magazine, HAHA Magazine, Hyperallergic, LatinLover, Modern Painters, No.3, Whitehot Magazine, and Whitewall. She is currently the Contributor-at-Large for ON-VERGE, an arts journalism blog sponsored by CUE Art Foundation, until 2013. She hosts her own blog, Contemporaneous Extension, as a compendium of aesthetic interests, archived exhibitions and artists, and uncensored inferences. She has contributed editorially to the College Art Association, the Bushwick Film Festival, Like the Spice Gallery, and the Museum of Modern Art.
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