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Why Kanye West used a remote crater in the desert as the set for his new film

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Artist James Turrell’s masterpiece, Roden Crater, is a monumental backdrop for Jesus is King

Rapper Kanye West performs amid a crowd of fans at a performance in Southern California.
Kanye West performs onstage during his “Jesus Is King” album and film experience at The Forum on October 23, 2019 in Inglewood, California. 
Getty Images for ABA

Few things are certain in life, but among the things you can count on is that Kanye West will be late when he releases an album, and that we will do whatever he can to make it an event. That’s certainly the case with his new release, Jesus is King, a gospel-infused record that’s blown passed multiple release dates, and will be the subject of an IMAX film being released on Oct. 25.

Amid the many noteworthy and attention-grabbing aspects of West’s new album drop is the shooting location of the new promotional film—the Roden Crater. Currently under construction, the project designed by light artist James Turrell is less a work of art than a literal monument, at a scale that recalls the work of ancient kings and pharaohs. Here’s an explainer on what exactly this project is and how it relates to West’s work.

What is the Roden Crater?

Simply put, it’s a mile-and-a-half-wide crater in the desert near Flagstaff, Arizona, that’s being rebuilt by Turrell as a personal sky observatory that “will bring the light of the heavens down to earth, linking visitors with the celestial movements of planets, stars and distant galaxies,” according to his artistic statement. Needless to say, it’s a passion project, one that’s been in the works since 1977.

It’s perhaps the most highly anticipated example of a genre of modern art known as Land Art, a movement born in the ’60s that literally cuts large-scale sculptural designs into the landscape. Turrell is sculpting a 600-foot-tall cylinder of earth and stone, a kind of large-scale telescope that will frame the sky’s changing light, a pursuit that’s taken decades and required large construction crews. In addition to the main work, there will be 20 or so additional viewing spaces and installations arranged throughout the site, including a water-filled chamber that reflects the sunrise and a space that will “allow visitors to see their shadow from the light of Jupiter.”

The first phase on construction—shaping the rim of the crater—required removing 1.3 million cubic yards of earth, and the entire site is still years from completion. The Skystone Foundation oversees fundraising for the massive endeavor, and Turrell has recently partnered with Arizona State University to raise $200 million to build a “creative and scientific community around the crater in the process.”

The monumental scale and sense of wonder the project is intended to inspire in visitors offers a thematic compliment to West’s new religious-tinged work (and West, who is a self-styled architect as well, may feel it’s a fitting stage).

Who is James Turrell?

An artist renowned for his work with light and spatial distortion—creating both intricately staged indoor light boxes, as well as outdoor sculptural rooms that offer a new perspective on the skies above—James Turrell, 76, is perhaps one of the most famous living American artists. As opposed to painting or depicting light, he creates spaces that bend, distort, or present light in a different way, part of the pioneering Light and Space movement that has inspired the likes of Olafur Eliasson and Anish Kapoor. An experienced pilot whose father was an aeronautical engineer, Turrell has long been fascinated with the sky, which he considers his “studio, material, and canvas.”

In some ways, the Roden Crater could be considered the large-scale crowning masterpiece in his “skyspaces” series—observation areas or celestial viewing rooms that frame the sky with subtle borders and walls. He’s built nearly 100 around the world since starting in the ’70s. A series of retrospectives starting in 2013 helped bring Turrell’s work to a wider audience, and perhaps helped him get on West’s radar.

How did Kanye become enchanted with James Turrell and the crater?

West has been a recent but devoted convert to Turrell’s work. Late last year, he toured Roden Crater multiple times after taking cross-country trips to appreciate Turrell’s art in person. Earlier this year, West donated $10 million to help finish Turrell’s masterpiece, stating that “one day, we’ll all be living in Turrell spaces.” This eventually led to the shooting of the soon-to-be-released film, which was directed by fashion photographer Nick Knight at the Crater last summer.

Why do hip-hop artists like Turrell so much?

Kanye West isn’t the first hip-hop superstar to embrace Turrell’s work. Drake famously used Turrell’s work as a reference for his 2015 “Hotline Bling” video (in a 2014 Rolling Stone interview, he told a journalist that Turrell was a big influence on the visuals for his last tour.) In response, Turrell said Drake had brought much more attention to his work, pithily stating, ”While I am truly flattered to learn that Drake fucks with me, I nevertheless wish to make clear that neither I nor any of my woes was involved in any way in the making of the Hotline Bling video.”