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Why Kanye’s new spiritual work keeps borrowing from James Turrell

Meet the artist whose work explains Kanye’s new aesthetic.

A figure is silhouetted against a green rectangle in a field of purple and pink light.
A man walks through the installation “Aural” by artist James Turrell at the Jewish Museum in 2018.
Wolfgang Kumm/Picture Alliance/Getty Images
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Earlier this year, Kanye West announced his intention to spend the rest of his career making only Christian music. And to establish the aesthetic of this new spiritual stage in his career, Kanye is turning to one of the world’s greatest quasi-spiritual artists: James Turrell, whose medium is light.

James Turrell’s fingerprints are all over the work Kanye has been putting out in 2019. Kanye’s new IMAX movie Jesus Is King was shot at Roden Crater, the site of the magnum opus art installation Turrell has been working on for the past 45 years, which Turrell describes as “a gateway to observe light, time, and space.” (Roden Crater is not currently open to the public, but after Kanye donated $10 million to the site, Turrell announced he’d be opening it up within the next five years. It’s worth noting that he’s been saying it should open up within the next five years for about 20 years now, though.)

But even before Jesus Is King made the artist’s influence on his work obvious, Kanye’s been cribbing from the Turrell handbook. The first Sunday Service videos he posted online in January were bathed in colored light, in tones heavily reminiscent of some of Turrell’s most famous installations. When he performed at Coachella this spring, Kanye framed the livestream through a pinhole effect that mimicked the way that Roden Crater is designed to function as a massive pinhole camera.

Whatever Kanye is trying to communicate about music and art and religion and God, he thinks that Turrell is going to help him do it. So: What is Turrell doing, and why does it matter to Kanye? How does Turrell’s aesthetic make sense of Kanye’s new turn to spirituality?

James Turrell uses light to change the way we see the world

A man walks through a room awash in violet light towards a series of receding rectangular frames
A man walks through James Turrell’s installation “Aural” at the Jewish Museum, April 2018.
Photo by Wolfgang Kumm/picture alliance via Getty Images

James Turrell, born in 1943, first came up in the 1960s, out of the California Minimalist art scene. His work is concerned with manipulating light and the way we see it — not with paint or three dimensional objects, but with pure beams of light that alter our perceptions.

“I look at light as a material,” Turrell said to Interview magazine in 2011. “It is physical. It is photons. Yes, it exhibits wave behavior, but it is a thing. And I’ve always wanted to accord to light its thing-ness.”

Turrell’s installations generally involve projections of light and holes opening up into ceilings that allow natural light into a space in unexpected ways. They are designed to disorient, to make us experience the physical world in new ways. At one of Turrell’s shows at the Whitney in 1980, the lights caused visitors to see walls that weren’t there; famously, when they tried to ground themselves amidst the overwhelming light all around them by steadying themselves against one of the non-existent walls of pure light, they fell to the ground. Multiple visitors were injured, and two of them sued. (Turrell considers this particular show a failure.)

Because Turrell’s medium is not a physical or conventional one, we don’t have an existing vocabulary in place to talk about his work the way we do about, say, oil painting or sculpture. And because the work is designed to literally change the way we perceive the world, it’s hard to come up with a new set of terminology that makes any sense. “It is simply too far removed from the language of reality, or for that matter, from reality itself,” wrote journalist Wil S. Hylton of Turrell’s work in 2013. That means most discussions about Turrell’s creative process tend to get either very abstract or very metaphorical very quickly.

But one question does keep emerging in discussions of Turrell’s work that seems particularly relevant to the way Kanye is using it. Is the light … well … about God?

A man is silhouetted against a circular window within a series of receding arches.
The Roden Center’s East Tunnel, with Michael Govan, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, inside. September 20, 2015.
Photo by Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post via Getty Images

There’s a pretty clear basis for that line of interpretation. Turrell was raised Quaker, and after a period of time out of the church, he returned to it as an adult. And Quakers think about God as “the light within,” a luminous force that every human being possesses, and the way that they worship is they sit together in silence in a Meeting and look for that light within.

Turrell has been explicit in saying that his Skyspace installations — many of which are in Quaker meetinghouses — are designed to push the audience to mimic the experience of Quaker Meeting. A Turrell Skyspace is a hole cut into a ceiling in such a way as to make the sky appear to be painted flat against the hole, and to see it, you lie down in meditative silence and you look up, experiencing the light without.

“They are Meetings,” Turrell told Interview magazine. To the Quaker magazine Friends Journal (where, full disclosure, I once interned), he describes his Skyspaces as “not that far from making something that is visual ministry for people in art.”

But Turrell has also registered some ambivalence about the idea that his art is inherently spiritual or religious, or indeed about anything beyond light and its actual, concrete “thing-ness” as a collection of particles.

“People tend to relate any work in light to the spiritual. I don’t think this is actually correct,” he told Sculpture magazine in 2002. But, he added, he can see where the impulse comes from: “There are very few religious or spiritual experiences that people don’t use the vocabulary of light to describe.”

Still, Turrell does seem to think that his art is getting at something else, something outside of the realm of language and the real, something more than that we can’t express with words or conventional artwork. In a 1999 interview, he connected that “something else” to a feeling he experienced as a child, walking through a garden, in which “things took on a life and a luminance that was like this near-death experience, with eyes open.”

“I would like to have the physicality of my light at least remind you of this other way of seeing,” he concluded. “That’s as best I can do. It’s terrible hubris to say this is a religious art. But it is something that does reminds us of that way we are when we are thinking of things beyond us.”

Turrell is clear, though, on the idea that it’s not only light or even only the visual arts that can take us into such a place of things beyond reality. “The example I like to give is the experience of sound when you are wearing good earphones or have a good stereo system. You find yourself in a music space that’s larger than the physical space you’re in,” he told Sculpture. He added, “This extension to the physical, awake state, a kind of daydream space that we superimpose on it, is the space that we should really discuss, because it’s actually the space of our reality. The arts, without a doubt, extend these spaces, whether it’s in literature or in music or visual art.”

Kanye’s Jesus Is King documentary begins with music blaring out of the IMAX speakers so loudly that you can feel it as a physical force in your bones. Then the screen opens up in the darkness of the Roden Crater’s East Tunnel, a darkness ringed with bright bright receding arches, and the camera moves forward and forward and forward until we’re in a celestially bright space, and a choir is singing.

It’s an opening that feels designed to move us into that “music space,” that “daydream space” that Turrell describes, which is “actually the space of our reality.” It’s a place where we can feel “things beyond us” — whether we want to think of them as religious or otherwise.

What Kanye wants to express about religion seems to be something that cannot be expressed in words. Instead, he wants to use his music as a means to transport his audience into a new space outside of themselves — a non-physical realm bathed in light. No wonder Kanye’s spiritual phase looks a lot like Turrell’s art.

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