Beginning to See the Light: Kanye West’s Fascination With James Turrell
Kanye West’s new IMAX film, Jesus is King, is set in a massive art installation in Arizona’s Painted Desert — a defunct volcano that’s been artist James Turrell’s white whale for the last 40 years.
Turrell has spent decades transforming Roden Crater — 21 viewing spaces connected by six tunnels — but even after all this time it’s still incomplete and not yet open to the public. In January, West donated $10 million to help finish the project, and now he’s scooped the art world and produced one of the most comprehensive looks at Turrell’s greatest work to date.
West’s affection for and affiliation with Turrell surfaced publicly last December when the rapper revealed his first pilgrimage to Roden Crater. A few days later, he was taking conference calls with Turrell and architect Norman Foster. By the end of the month, he was at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, standing beside Turrell, smiling, inside a piece called “Perfectly Clear,” a two-story room so drenched in magenta it’s unclear where the walls, floor, ceiling end or begin. Soon, West was donating millions of dollars to Roden Crater, which could finally open to the public in the next five years.
"You finally got me here, bro."
— @kanyewest to James Turrell this morning pic.twitter.com/HNlxhFG0GJ
— MASS MoCA (@MASS_MoCA) December 27, 2018
West hasn’t spoken much about what draws him to Turrell’s work, save for an interview with David Letterman on My Next Guest Needs No Introduction, where he discussed the artist’s work in the context of mental health and light therapy, saying, “His lights turn you into a zen state.” But the appeal is surely multi-faceted. West is obviously hyper-attuned to the visuals that accompany his music and knows how to recognize a perfect vibe and tailor it to his needs. Plus, he and Turrell are both highly particular artists who often miss deadlines in their pursuit for perfection; Roden Crater was set to open years ago.
Turrell’s manipulation of space and light might also appeal to West’s let’s-just-call-it ambitious plan to solve affordable housing (“We all will live in Turrell spaces,” he tweeted after visiting Roden Crater for the first time). And it’s also possible that the way Turrell cultivates color — almost as if it’s emanating not around you but from within you — resonates in a uniquely profound way for West, who has synesthesia, a neurological condition where he sees sounds as various colors.
But at this moment in West’s life and career, his fascination with Turrell has to be viewed through his deep Christian faith and embrace of gospel music. The Jesus Is King film accompanies West’s new album of the same name, although it only features a few songs from the album alongside traditional gospel numbers and reinterpretations of old West tracks. West is barely in it, but obviously he’s the driving creative force.
Instead, Jesus Is King is a showcase for his Sunday Service choir, but also Roden Crater. The two make a potent combo: a top-notch gospel choir, dressed in loose brown outfits, singing, testifying and praising in these wide, round rooms cut with gaping skylights.
“[West] would tell us about it, he had been several times,” Sunday Service choir director Jason White tells Rolling Stone. “We didn’t know what we were walking into; we just followed him. Playing in those unique rooms, we could hear the sound, the reverberation from those walls. Being in that room, looking into the sky, it was straight up heavenly.”
Turrell is a long-standing art world favorite, but he only really entered the popular consciousness in the past 10 years. The tipping point likely came in 2013 when he opened three massive retrospectives in Los Angeles, Houston and New York within the span of a month; prior to that, as the New York Times noted in a profile, he’d only had two major museum shows, one in New York in 1980 and one in L.A. in 1985.
Admittedly, much of Turrell’s work isn’t conducive to traditional museum or gallery environments, unless it’s one of his light projections, or installed as a permanent exhibit. His “Skyspaces” series, for instance, requires dedicated rooms or outposts, where an opening can be carved into the roof. The aperture is constructed just so that it looks as if the sky is flush with the ceiling. Sometimes, Turrell will counterbalance the natural light pouring in with artificial light shooting out, giving the impression that the color of the sky has changed.
Turrell developed his Skyscapes during a prolific seven-year period that started in the late Sixties, when he turned an abandoned hotel in Santa Monica into a personal studio. There, he trained projections on corners, creating shapes that looked three-dimensional; he hid lightbulbs in secret pockets, filling empty rooms with light, then used brighter bulbs to create glowing frames that altered the viewer’s depth perception.
Over the years, he refined his vibrant and immersive combination of color, shape and light into a signature aesthetic that arguably reached its widest audience when it was used, sans Turrell’s involvement, in the 2015 video for Drake’s “Hotline Bling.”
A year prior, Rolling Stone contributor Jonah Weiner had accompanied Drake to the Turrell retrospective in Los Angeles. “I fuck with Turrell,” Drake said. “He was a big influence on the visuals for my last tour.”
With the “Hotline Bling” video, Drake and Director X concocted an instantly meme-able homage to Turrell that even the artist admired. Turrell issued a statement saying that although neither he nor “any of [his] woes” were involved in the clip, he was “truly flattered to learn that Drake fucks with me.”
Drake, probably more than anyone else in contemporary music, knows a good vibe when he sees one, and the viral success of the “Hotline Bling” video speaks to the way Turrell’s work resonates in the age of Instagram and pop-up “museums,” like the Museum of Ice Cream.
This is not to say social media, clout chasing and the thirst for experiences has warped his work or intention. In fact, he might’ve been anticipating this moment for decades. Turrell designs his pieces to elicit a physical and cognitive response; they are meant to be experienced. And often, the act of seeing a Turrell requires some effort: He’s scattered his work across 22 countries and 17 U.S. states. The only museum dedicated solely to Turrell is located in the remote mountains of Northern Argentina.
In that 2013 Times profile, the artist Chuck Close said of Turrell: “He’s an orchestrator of experience, not a creator of cheap effects. And every artist knows how cheap an effect is, and how revolutionary an experience.”
To say the least, the same goes for Kanye West. Think of the steady drip of singles ahead of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, the sheer existence of Watch the Throne, the seven-screen premiere of Cruel Summer at Cannes, the guerilla-style video projections for Yeezus, the Life of Pablo party/fashion show at Madison Square Garden, the Wyoming bonfire for Ye, etc.
The lead-up to Jesus Is King — outside of West’s relentless, half-baked shilling for President Donald Trump — has centered around Sunday Service. It began as a weekly, invite-only event in Calabasas, California, and has since begun to resemble a traveling revival of sorts. Go to the Sunday Service website and West tells you his exact intentions in eight words: “Kanye West. Jesus is King. Sunday Service Experience.” (Actually, there’s a ninth word — “Shop.”)
The Jesus is King IMAX film isn’t a recreation of a Sunday Service, but it is a distillation of its essence and an experience in its own right. But so is its setting. Not just because of the inherent experience-ness of any Turrell piece, but because an invite to Roden Crater is, as the Times put it, one of the most coveted tickets in the art world, reserved for select friends, curators, occasional journalists and some of its wealthy patrons. So while West surely relished the chance to offer such an exclusive showcase of Roden Crater, he clearly saw something in the space that appealed to his faith and the work his faith was driving.
Turrell’s work doesn’t have to be read through a religious lens, but it certainly can be. His “Ganzfeld” series — named for the German word that describes a “phenomenon of the total loss of depth perception” — invites visitors to walk up a set of stairs toward a glowing rectangle of color that seems like a flat barrier, but is actually a plane that can be crossed. Inside, the curved walls and full color combine to dissolve any semblance of structure to the space around you. Your feet are on a floor, but you’re floating.
The piece West visited with Turrell, “Perfectly Clear,” is a Ganzfeld, and one appears to feature prominently in an early sequence in Jesus Is King. It’s a stunning fly-through of the rippling keyhole hallway that is Roden Crater’s Alpha (East) Tunnel, culminating in a swift climb up a bronze staircase, at the top of which awaits a blinding white portal of light that soon engulfs the entire screen. With the Sunday Service choir belting away, it’s hard not feel like you’re going towards the light in the most traditional sense of the phrase.
The rest of the film isn’t necessarily so overt, but for the 30 minutes of Jesus Is King, Roden Crater functions as a cathedral. Most of the scenes take place in two Skyspace chambers, East Portal and Crater’s Eye, and the film does well to show how Turrell has designed those spaces to change depending on the time of day.
In one of the few scenes featuring West, he sings a sparse version of “Street Lights” in Crater’s Eye, the entire room flushed in blue dusk; earlier in the same room, bathed in bright daylight, the Sunday Service choir vamps ecstatically on “More Abundantly.”
The film’s most stunning sequence also takes place in Crater’s Eye, and it comprises a single vertical shot of director Jason White conducting the choir through “Perfect Praise” as dark clouds fill the aperture above. The sharp angle adds an intensity to White’s already dramatic movement, making it seem like one moment he’s striving toward the gathering storm, then stretching down from it the next.
Separating the scenes in Jesus Is King are title cards with various Bible verses, among them, John 8:12, “Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’” It’s a fitting verse that highlights the way West has latched on to light as both a physical form and a sacred metaphorical thing guiding whatever spiritual journey/ultralight beam he’s on at the moment.
Light is Christ, light is God, light is embedded in the colors West sees when he hears a song. In Turrell — a man who grew up in a devout Quaker family where “Inner Light” was a key tenet — West has maybe found a kindred spirit. Maybe not someone so overtly devout, but someone who has dedicated his life to a quest for, and toward, some greater light.
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