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As is often said about Land Art pieces, the “getting there” was part of the experience. Our drive from Albuquerque to Quemado was punctuated by benchmarks: losing cell phone reception, eating lunch at a picnic table in the desert badlands with hummingbirds darting in and out, having our two-car caravan guided by a “pilot car” through a gravel construction zone. We finally arrived at our destination, the appropriately minimalist "white two-story building" that is the Quemado base of operations for the Dia Art Foundation, owner and overseer of Walter De Maria's 1977 masterpiece, The Lightning Field.
According to Dia caretaker Robert Weathers, the office once displayed other examples of De Maria’s works, including a portion of his 1976-77 Equal Area Series (more recently on view at Dia Beacon). Now the building, which has a newly finished floor, is completely empty save for a ping-pong table in the back. We were asked to sign a guest book, and from the signatures it was clear that almost every night the site is open to the public--six months per year, from May through October--it was at or near its limit of six visitors per day, which De Maria had stipulated. We were then loaded into a van, and while I’ve always assumed that people are asked to leave their cars in Quemado in order to obfuscate the location of The Lightning Field, it is clear that it would be impossible for us to have found the site on our own. There were no street signs on the web of dirt roads we took, driving through cattle ranches for almost an hour before we could just see the metal rods winking at us through the shimmering desert air.
The Lightning Field, situated in the high desert of New Mexico, is comprised of 400 steel poles that double as lightning rods, embedded in the earth at different levels but all achieving a uniform 20.7 feet in height, and spaced 220 feet apart in rows of 16 by 25. The poles run a mile East-West and a kilometer North-South through a plateau that De Maria chose for its frequent lightning storms, which occur roughly 60 times per year, and for the surrounding area completely absent of any visible development.
A visit to the site is tightly governed by instructions laid out by De Maria. Viewers are to experience the site either alone or in very small groups--hence the maximum of six people per night--spending roughly 24 hours in the field and the small rustic cabin by the perimeter that furnishes the visitor lodgings. Consecutive-night stays are not allowed, which means most visitors arrive mid-afternoon and are picked up mid-morning on the next day, for an all-inclusive fee of $250 in the summer and $150 in cooler months. Lastly, and famously, photography of the site is not permitted. (ArtWeLove obtained the images illustrating this piece, such as the one below, from online sources.)
Compared to the relatively cushy state of development at Donald Judd's Marfa compound, I hadn’t realized that the Lightning Field experience would be so profoundly influenced by the natural elements of the desert. Only the night before we departed, I checked the visitor information and it occurred to me that wildlife might be a concern in the desert. I quickly added jeans and boots to my suitcase, which was until then filled with bathing suits, light linen clothes, and a pair of bright orange heels. “You thought you were doing art tourism,” my friend and travel companion joked, and she was right. But indeed the experience of The Lightning Field is all about the elements and the land. As you wander through the field, the rods become place-makers, designators that seem to establish the landscape as much as demarcate it. Passing hours alone, in silence, seeing the changes in light reflected and amplified in the steel poles, one comes to think a good deal about measurements of geography and time.
As I later discussed with Modern Art Notes blogger Tyler Green, who visited The Lightning Field in 2005, the piece doesn’t provoke introspection but rather external reflection. With the brutally affecting conditions of altitude, temperature, and sun combined with the sleeplessness of excitement and an intention to stay awake for sunrise, sunset, and as many hours of the night as possible, one is not in the frame of mind to have a distanced critical rumination about interpreting or deconstructing the artwork. On my first walk out, I counted the first seven rows of rods I passed, and then the project seemed irrelevant and I just started to wander. Sometime later in the afternoon, I realized the loudest sound I could hear was that of my blood pumping in my ears. It was as though the static of my customary day-to-day had completely disintegrated. You are deeply inside of it, and subject to it. You become intimate with the space.
By the time we left everyone in our party had wandered to all corners of the field (and beyond), and had walked the perimeter alone or in pairs. I had learned it was about 100 paces between poles, and I had a speculation about which was the shortest pole in the field (I was wrong). Though I didn’t see rattlesnakes, I did encounter enormous jackrabbits, luminous indigo beetles, and an elk that I bumped into in a grassy divot, an experience that left me feeling simultaneously nervous and light-headedly enchanted. The fact that there was no lightning storm during the visit did little to detract from the site's power.
Inside the cabin, Dia provides a slim bound binder of relevant reading, including De Maria's article about his piece in Artforum vol. XVIII, No. 8 (April 1980) and other information about technical development of the project (from which my statistics above are culled). Among the most interesting sections is an extended passage about the difficulty of finding a shop willing to machine 22-foot poles sharpened to "needle-sharpness." The effect of this sharpness is multi-fold: the poles seem to just fade into the sky, and it is difficult to calculate height, and therefore perspectival distance.
Though the range of vision in the clear, flat desert is vast, it is often difficult to discern the shape of other people walking in the field. I often found myself disoriented. On one of the adjacent hills, a white dot marks the caretaker’s house, where the 73-year-old De Maria himself often stays when he visits the site. Robert Weathers, who worked on the original production of the field, has been its caretaker since 1980. When he came to pick us up in the morning, we discussed the ways that one decision, or brief event, can influence a lifetime.