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James Turrell
"The Light Inside" installation, by James Turrell, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas

The reasons why everyone from Beyoncé to Drake loves artist James Turrell

Last week, Kanye West donated $10 million to one of Turrell’s projects, but the 75-year-old artist’s credentials long precede co-signs from music royalty

Last week it was reported that Kanye West had donated $10 million to artist James Turrell’s ongoing ”Roden Crater Project” (1972). The 75-year-old artist has spent a large portion of his working life converting an extinct volcano in Arizona’s Painted Desert into a major land art piece which West described on Twitter as “life-changing”. Turrell has been fundraising $200 million in collaboration with Arizona State University, with plans to turn the site into a “creative campus”, and has offered an updated estimated opening of 2024.

Buying and converting a 400,000-year-old extinct volcano is, of course, no small feat. But in the context of Turrell’s five-decade career – which includes works as ambitious and far-flung as a chapel in Berlin to a luminescent house in Japan and the lush botanical gardens of Culiacán, Mexico – it makes complete sense.

Many people first came to know Turrell through Drake’s “Hotline Bling” music video, with the LA-born artist even commenting, “(I’m) truly flattered to learn that Drake f*cks with me.” However, the famously enigmatic artist’s credentials were weighted long before co-signs from rap’s royalty. In honour of the “Roden Crater Project” being one step closer to completion, we reveal the reason why we can’t get enough of the man behind some of the world’s most transcendental – and ambitious – artworks.


Having earned his pilot license at 16-years-old, Turrell has logged over 12,000 air miles and considers the sky to be his studio, material, and canvas. A love of exploring higher plains, plus a fascination with light since early childhood, were set in motion by the presence of his aeronautical engineer father. Turrell attributes the development of his knowledge in the fields of aviation and space to his father's vast library. These interests soon led him to study the psychology of perception at Pomona College before switching to art. It is a culmination of these seemingly incidental practices that have lead to Turrell becoming the multi-faceted artist he is today.

Turrell’s “Skyspaces” series (1986 – present) is the artistic realisation of these inclinations combined. His first public skyspace “Meeting” (1986) opened in 1978 at MoMA PS1 and you can go see it today. He has since created 89 more around the world including ”Within/Without” (2010) at the National Gallery of Australia, and “Space that Sees” (1992) at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Each skyspace is site-specific, with Turrell making numerous visits to each location before installation, to study the specificities of the sky particular to each given landscape. Turrell says, “I respond to what the sky is: you have maritime skies, desert skies, and you have high desert skies. I’m doing some also in the Alps – and there you have the really crisp blue that can happen in the winter, which is almost like a blue you can cut into cubes.”


It’s possible you’ve never heard of the light and space movement and that’s because it's not widely recognised as a movement per se, but more a sensibility that arose among Californian artists in the 1960s. Turrell along with contemporaries, such as Doug Wheeler and Robert Irwin, had grown tired of the limitations of abstract paint – a popularised form at the time – and were seeking a new medium through which they could express their conceptual and minimalistic ideas. 

In 1966, Turrell made his first light projections at the Mendota Hotel, when he began experimenting with light by covering windows in such a way that only a certain pocket would become illuminated. Today many artists, including Olafur Eliasson and Anish Kapoor, use the manipulation of light and space to alter perception and create transcendental experiences in their art, but Turrell was one of the first to do so. When a rare show on the light and space movement called Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface was held at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego in 2011, Eliasson commented on the exhibition to Hyperallergic saying, “The light and space movement – of great importance to my development as a young artist – is far more than a valid art historical reference. It translates matters of psychology, phenomenology, critically, emotional investment, and now-ness into an immaterial language that is both subversive and compelling. Light and space is as contemporary as ever.”


Widely referred to as Turrell’s magnum opus, ”The Roden Crater Project” (1972) is an extinct volcano in the desert near Flagstaff, Arizona, that the artist has been transforming into a series of rooms and tunnels since the 1970s. By carving out viewing chambers and building stairways in this 400,000-year-old site, Turrell is creating a naked-eye astronomical observatory. Just like the ancient Stonehenge, the space will operate as a sanctuary for stargazing and celestial contemplation.  

The site is the apex of a life spent interrogating the field of human visual and psychological perception. It sits within the tradition of American land art that began in the 1960s, where artworks such as Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” (1970) and Nancy Holt’s “Sun Tunnels” (1973-76) were built in purposefully remote locations so that viewing the work would require a pilgrimage to become immersed in nature, allowing one to consciously separate from socialised life.

Despite four decades in the making, the crater is not yet open to the public but is estimated to open in 2024.


Way before hipsters in Brooklyn began to submerge themselves in sensory deprivation tanks, Turrell was using similar methods in his immersive installations. The mind-bending Ganzfeld effect, which Turrell features in many of his works, is a mild form of sensory deprivation which creates the effect of white-out and is caused by all-encompassing exposure to a field of light. The Ganzfeld effect was discovered by the German Gestalt psychologist Wolfgang Metzger in the 1930s and was named so after the word “ganzfeld” used in his native language to describe the absolute loss of depth perception.

For “Akhob” (2013), Turrell created a walk-in light environment for French fashion house Louis Vuitton in which viewers could experience the ganzfeld effect. Installed in Las Vegas, the huge installation epitomised Turrell’s ganzfeld pieces, with a large set of almost ceremonial stairs leading the viewer towards two egg-shaped rooms, both flooded in light of alternating colours. What better place, than a city built on illusion to house such a mind-warping installation? The calming effects of Turrell’s room, no doubt amplified when the viewer steps inside, away from the madness and the assault of the senses that is Las Vegas.

While “Akhob” is Turrell’s largest Ganzfeld work to date, he has created several others, including “Aural” (2018) located in a temporary chapel in a museum garden in Berlin, “The Light Inside” (1999), a glowing underground tunnel linking two parts of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and the light space Apani (2011) created for the Venice Biennale. Upon entry, viewers would perceive a flat projection of colour, only to find this was actually a light-filled room they could step into.


Back in 2015, Drake borrowed from the artist when he danced around some suspiciously Turrellesque light rooms in the video for “Hotline Bling”. When the video blew up online and turned Drake into a meme, many art types were quick to point out the similarities between the neon backdrops and Turrell’s lightscapes. The artist later released a statement declaring that neither he nor his “woes” were involved in the making of the video, though he was flattered that Drake “fucks with me”.

Drake isn’t the only celebrated musician to have taken artistic cues from Turrell. It has been speculated that parts of the Es Devlin-created set of Beyoncé’s Formation show were inspired by Turrell. This isn't the first time Beyoncé has been suspected of nicking an artist’s ideas. In 2016, there were accusations that the video for “Hold Up” – in which she walked down the street, smashing car windows with a baseball bat – closely resembled Pipilotti Rist’s “Ever Is Over All”, a two-channel video installation made for the 47th Venice Biennale in 1997.

And, of course, the announcement last week that Kanye West a cool $10 million to the artist's unfinished “Roden Crater”. 


“Perceptual Cells” (1989) is an ongoing series which sees viewers isolated in an elevated pod that is flooded with light. Viewers need to sign a paper confirming they aren’t epileptic before entering the cell, and must choose between a hard or a soft version of the experience. In what sounds like the most intense MRI scan of your life, visitors lie on a bed that slides through a panel into a spherical chamber filled with light. Here you will sit for 20 minutes while the colour and intensity of the dome changes around you. Spectrums of colours come and go and as the viewer enters a meditative, dream-like state. One critic who experienced “Bindu Shards” (2010) claimed he had a “mental orgasm”.