On October 25, Kanye West released the IMAX film Jesus is King in conjunction with his gospel album of the same name. Billed as bringing “Kanye West’s famed Sunday Service to life in the Roden Crater,” the movie unites West with a big name of contemporary art, James Turrell.
Turrell’s art is about visual perception, light and color. He is famous for creating walk-in installations that draw their architecture from Quaker meeting houses and showcase phenomena like the ganzfeld effect with awe-inspiring results. Typically, photographs are not allowed because the work is designed to be seen in person.
UT’s James Turrell skyspace, located on the roof of the Student Activity Center, is a blessing. The sunset sequence draws viewers from all over the country, who for an hour under the vibrantly pigmented sky come together to form an impromptu community. I’ve spent countless solitary afternoons in the skypace reading, studying, praying and meditating. It’s a space that encourages thought and introspection. Turrell’s latest and much anticipated project in Arizona’s Roden Crater is a network of skyspaces funded in large part by Kanye West. Kanye has used Turrell’s installations as backdrops for some of his music videos, generating much attention for the artist’s work. But is a collaboration with Kanye in the form of an IMAX film going to point Americans toward Turrell’s insights on perception and inspire much-needed quiet reflection? I suspect not.
Perception is certainly a key word for both artists. Kanye himself is a master of branding. His well crafted public image as a slightly crazy musical genius is sufficiently volatile to keep his name in the news and on the lips of young people. But Kanye’s latest project doesn’t seem to be addressed to his core audience. His new gospel album coupled with his baffling support of Donald Trump suggests he’s targeting a conservative white evangelical subset of the population by offering them a rare chance to be seen as cool.
Turrell and Kanye’s latest collaboration is missing urgency and cultural releavency. The art enthusiast in me is seduced by the hype and can’t wait to see a glimpse of the Roden Crater in IMAX, but in a more sober sense, I don’t care. In the long term, branding and names fade. Turell and Kanye may very well survive the test of time on their own merits, but their work is at its best when it responds to the cultural moment. An IMAX film coupling a disappointing album with the progress on an art installation in the middle of the desert is too distant from mainstream American culture to matter to anyone who isn’t already a fan of both the artist and the musician.
Jesus is King is playing at Austin’s Regal Gateway and IMAX through Nov. 7.