White Sands National Park is located within the White Sands Missile Range. Meaning that during test launches the park is closed down to prevent any errant missiles from taking out a family sledding down the dunes. Luckily for Jackie and myself, the park was open all day and we had free range to explore the gypsum sand dunes. At the day’s finale we were rewarded with the clearest, most saturated sunset I had ever seen. Calling it a computer-enhanced, ray-traced image would be an understatement.
I meant to post without comment, but I’ll say two things, briefly:
1) New Mexico, Land of Enchantment, is where the nuclear era really began. Specifically here at the White Sands Missile Range (WSMR), the country’s largest military installation. In the words of architect Nick Sowers, WSMR is the “massive tract of google-map-grey-space measuring one hundred miles north to south and forty miles wide. This is the ultimate war games playground.” And while the trinity shot heralded the birth of the nuclear world, New Mexico has also become the nuclear grave. With the Obama administration’s closure of Yucca Mountain in Nevada for storing hot nuclear waste, sites in New Mexico are being prepped for long-term storage (seriously long term, the U.S. Federal Court set the threshold that DOE needs to prove a site storing nuclear site will remain safe at one million years) of nuclear waste. As Scientific American points out in last months article “Is There a Place for Nuclear Waste?“, the politics of geography has changed. With a Texan in the White House, nuclear dumps in the Lone Star State were out of the question, and now that Obama narrowly carried Nevada on the promise to close Yucca, New Mexico is looking pretty tempting. Much like Turrell endlessly hollowing out the Roden Crater to transform the earth into a cosmological art experience, the Department of Energy is concurrently busily hollowing out mines around the Chihuahuan Desert near Carlsbad to bury spent nuclear waste more than 2,000 feet below the hard pan desert surface.
2) Again, as at the Titan II Missile Museum or the National Atomic Museum, what was once classified top-secret becomes a proudly public presentation, that is not so much a museum, but rather stands as a monument to American scientists and engineers ingenuity and abilities to construct the best missiles, sending the greatest payloads over the longest ranges. Walking between the towering missiles here, the best word I can think to describe the sensation is “creepy.” The security checkpoint to get onto the base only serves to heighten the otherworldly feel of the place, which doesn’t seem to deter a steady stream of families from arriving at the “park” and laughing and taking pictures in front of some of the more dramatic missiles. The Lance missile mounted onto a half-track was a popular destination. The landscape is charged here not only the cordite of 45,000 explosions, but with something intangible, that is no less real. Something that artist Patrick Nagatani has picked up on and used to great effect in a series of photomontages titled “Nuclear Enchantment.“
Nagatani’s wry sense of humor keeps his exquisite photomontages from coming across as too heavy-handed or shrilly political. His works, including Nike-Hercules Missile Monument, shows crowds of Japanese tourists holding miniature, souvenir-sized replicas of the Nike missile looming in the background in a scene that would be heartbreaking if it weren’t also hilarious. His painted blood-red or radiated yellow skies also best convey the eeriness and utter insanity that lurks in the background of all these real-life sites. Each piece is like an ironic ode to the facade of normality that we all go through, living our lives in shadow of not only these missiles but a world that accepts the existence of nuclear weapons.
The missile park is a museum in the sense that the military is showing their past work, but hinting at the greatness still to come. If you see a video of an invisible, airborne Advanced Tactical Laser burning through the hood of a car and disabling the engine block, this is where it was filmed. Few can dispute that tactical laser weapons are pretty cool, but I only mourn that new killing instruments appear outside the perception of the human eye, leaving future generations to walk through the WSMR and miss the tangible quality of standing in the shadow of an Athena missile, touching the metal and steel rivets, admiring the proportions of the radially arrayed fins. Then again, maybe future progeny will be just as happy without the instruments of war proudly glistening in the desert sun.
“We shape our tools and afterwards our tools shape us.” Marshall McLuhan
Twenty miles south of Tucson, buried beneath the desert hardpan, lies the most impressive of museums. The Titan II Missile Museum, the only ICBM missile silo open to the public, where groups of guided tours led by former U.S. Air Force crew members descend down into the underground structures and explore the facility comprising of the launch control center, the missile silo and the blast lock portal where you’re greeted with the 3-ton, 12-inch-thick blast doors. Inside is the Titan II Missile, 110-feet of riveted steel and technological precision. The absolute limit of technology, a nuclear-tipped missile created with the means to end not just war, but all existence, the world itself, at the push of a button. The most impressive thing about it is that the missile remains peacefully chambered in the silo, the launch orders were never received, and the missile never needed to fly. Peace through deterrence.
The oft-spoken mantra – “peace through deterrence” – occurs with such frequency throughout the retro-introductory video and the subsequent guided-tour, that one gets the distinct impression that the intonation references not just the geopolitical stalemate condition that was mistakenly labeled as “peace,” but also some kind of internal meditative state – an inner-peace – in the crew. No doubt a certain imperturbable composure is required for the type of person that volunteers for a job that requires a no-questions-asked-yessir approach to the command to destroy not just a far-off city but most likely civilization itself. After all, regardless of the technological brilliance in advanced airspace detection warnings and missile guidance technology, it all comes down to two guys, standing across from each other in an underground room agreeing to simultaneously turn their “fail-safe” keys, press a button, and launch an H-bomb-tipped ICBM. I asked our tour guide, who, by all accounts, seemed like an utterly reasonable, friendly human-being with a wry sense of humor, if he had undergone any especially rigorous psychological exams or maybe if he even had to undergo any false-positive drills by the military to test his mettle and ensure an unflinchingly appropriate response if the launch codes ever arrived. He responded that they were soldiers, drilled to take orders, but no extenuating psychological tests were necessary, because the overall “peace through deterrence”-ness of the mission guaranteed a clear conscious.
Granted, I didn’t grow up with the duck and cover films, the under the desk school drills, or the stockpiling of supplies in my backyard bomb shelter, so I feel so far removed from the general insanity of mutual assured destruction that the chasm of time renders the whole situation even more unreal and makes me feel even more skeptical than some of the older patrons on our Titan Missile Tour. And as futile as it probably is to try to find logic in strategic defense planning when nuclear weapons come into play, the whole “peace through deterrence” thing he’s clinging to screams of inconsistencies if you really think about it. Simply put, if the Soviets (or Chinese) launched a first strike, our deterrent capabilities were unsuccessful, so any second strike is simply retaliatory, launched in spite. The whole strategic defense mechanism was built around game theory – that a rational opponent wouldn’t call an ever-escalating series of bluffs. It gets interesting because deterrence doesn’t really require that anything actually functionally work – the missiles could just be a feint – but it’s the perception, the illusion that becomes reality, the truly frightening notion that the other side believes we’re crazy enough that we’ve got it in our collective disposition to throw down with World War III if the shit came down to it. That’s what makes “peace through deterrence” so reassuring. Not because of its paradoxical ridiculousness as a viable Cold War nuclear strategy (well, I guess it worked), but that it acknowledges that there is an inherent consciousness in our nation’s psyche. We needed it and this guy who worked the three-day shifts down in the silo needed it because, otherwise, you have to confront the reality that the whole thing is a deranged facade. Instead of looking into the terrifying abyss of nuclear weapons and seeing the end of the world, we managed to avert that by convincing ourselves that it was all for “peace,” a technological deterrent that let us off the hook, free to believe that a preemptive strike was antithetical to our very beings. Self-deception is generally assumed to be a bad quality. Here at the frontline of the Cold War it doesn’t seem like such a bad thing at all. In fact, I wonder if here it leads to a deeper understanding or revelation. That we’re the only nation to use atomic weapons against a civilian population makes it all the more heart-breakingly ambiguous.
Or, as the nuclear engineer states at the beginning of the Titan introductory film, “This is what it took to wage a nuclear war. And this is what it took to wage nuclear peace.”
It turns out that when Dr. Strangelove said that the whole point of a Doomsday Machine is lost if you keep it a secret, he could also have also been referring to obsolete, decommissioned doomsday machines. In accord with the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, the Titan’s blast doors have to always remain open, visible to Russian satellites. And in a testament to the resolution of orbiting Russian satellite imagery, the small yellow cutout in the missile head is large enough to reveal that the enclosure is devoid of any nuclear warhead. Of course, when the Titan II was equipped with a 9-megaton (the exact explosive tonnage is still classified) warhead from 1963 to 1984, it wasn’t really much of a secret then either. It was one of 18 other missile silos based around Davis Monthan Air Force Base that were visible to satellites. The more impressive-looking they were, the greater their deterrent value, and the more tempting a target they became. This also had the effect of turning the adjacent, sleepy town of Tucson into a strategic nuclear target, and the people that lived there knew it. The majority of visitors to the Titan Museum are locals. Having lived a good portion of their lives in the shadow of an ICBM, they now take advantage of being able to walk around the formerly classified, off-limits site and take as many photos as they can of Missile Site 571-7. This site has been reappropriated as an educational museum, where visitors can see and touch the surface and underground features of the complex. The rest of the decommissioned silos are another story, many of which are now hot real-estate investment opportunities.
There were a total of 54 Titan II missile silos, and, in addition to those around Tucson, there were others near Little Rock Air Force Base in Arkansas and McConnell Air Force Base in Kansas. The last of the Titan II missiles were decommissioned in 1987, the aging technological relics were updated with the more advanced Minuteman and MX Peacekeeper ICBMs. The new missiles required new silos, and the end of the Cold War was no impetus to the creation of even more complex underground ICBM silos that are now scattered across the Great Plains. But that left the outdated Titan II silos to slowly rot away while the military had to incur outrageous maintenance costs for obsolete installations. The thing about ICBM silos is that they were designed to survive a direct nuclear attack. So the walls are thick, like six-feet-of-solid-concrete thick. And all the floors are on a dampening suspension system, detached from the walls, so that in the event of any seismic activity, everything can flex and adjust itself independently. They’re an ageless, elemental example of security through entombment and they’re going to last forever. Built to survive an Armageddon that never came, the question now arises: what do we do with them?
They’ll outlive us by thousands of years as a monument to our own ingenuity, paranoia, and military superiority. These sinister void spaces in the desert landscape that comprise a vast network of underground ruins on par with the catacombs of Paris or the aqueducts of Rome – examples of other amazing feats of life-sustaining infrastructure. As told in Richard Rhodes thoroughly engrossing The Making of the Atomic Bomb, in 1939 when Danish Nobel-winning physicist Niels Bohr was asked whether he believed the United States could split the atom and create a nuclear explosion, he immediately expressed skepticism that the country had the will and determination to ever successfully undertake such a monumental task. He believed it could never be done “without turning the United States into one huge factory.” By 1944 Bohr was proven right. While touring the massive Site X at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and seeing the thousands upon thousands of workers toiling away in an instant city on projects that they didn’t have security clearance to understand, Bohr remarked to Edward Teller, “I told you it couldn’t be done without turning the whole country into a factory. You have done just that.” Even now, what was built then has not been surpassed. Skidmore, Owings & Merrill provided the layout for the town and the designs for the individual, prefabricated, modular homes, a town for 75,000 people that went up in less than two years. The K-25 Building, which was built to enrich uranium during the Manhattan Project, was the largest building under one roof in the world – still the largest in the United States – over a mile in length and sheltering 1.6 million square feet. It’s currently in the midst of demolition, in a time consuming process that is both more expensive and longer lasting than the cost and time it took to build it up. Which brings us back to decommissioned missile silos.
There’s probably a certain type of person that would want to live inside a former nuclear missile complex, and those types of people had their chance when the military, in an attempt to squeeze some profit out of the dormant underground bunkers and the adjacent land, put the silos up at public auction. In an ironically twisted rehabilitation program, end-of-times survivalists can now make their homes and wait out Armageddon in the former weaponized tools that were designed to bring about said end in the first place. The archetypal genesis of their paranoid fears turned out to be the only acceptably safe refuge. Other silos ended up as “swanky bachelor pads,” (“secret nerd lair” doesn’t have the same ring to it), which inevitably leads to questions regarding the success rate of taking women home, when home is a desolate, windowless, underground former missile silo. Walking through the underground chambers of the Titan Museum, a space so charged where the layers of history were so strong a presence and the air had a stillness that was broken up by unexpected drafts while the lighting system induced a claustrophobic sense of broken-time disorientation, I’m skeptical that any number of lava lamps and fruit bowls could dispel that haunted house vibe. Luckily, the housing market crash hasn’t seemed to affect the silo market, the awesomely named 20th Century Castles, will still sell you a Titan I missile silo for $2.8 million, and their website proudly shows images of happy middle-aged, normal-looking couples posing in front of their cableway, decked out with family portraits, house plants, and garishly patterned rocking chairs in place of decontamination suits, launch control consoles, and blast locks.
But none of that can match the excitement of the climax to the Titan II Missile Museum tour, what we’ve all been waiting for: the mock launch. Chuck, our guide, asks for a volunteer. A young kid, born after 1989, jumps up and hops into the commander’s chair. A siren goes off as Chuck, standing to the side, reads and validates the launch code orders. Target 2 is selected. Chuck holds his key and the kid does the same. On his mark, turn. Now the kid, sitting at the launch console, his hand on the key, waits for Chuck to give him the signal to synchronously turn his key. Suddenly he seems to feel it. There’s a hesitation in his movements, no longer the eager volunteer, uncertain if this is really what he wants to do. Chuck gives the signal, the kid limply turns his key. The button is pushed. The lights in the kiva-like command center change to red. A piercing air-raid siren starts up. “Ready to launch” becomes “launch enabled.” The missile batteries engage, liquid oxygen floods the missile chamber and activates the launching mechanisms, “lift-off” goes green, and 58 seconds after order received the missile is in the air. Thirty-five minutes after that, target strike. We’ll meet again someday. No one breathes, a certain calmness washes over the group. Peace through deterrence, peace through deterrence….
Fire flashed in the pre-dawn New Mexico desert with the explosive force of 20 kilotons of TNT. Ground zero was 40 miles west of Socorro but the 7.5-mile high mushroom cloud was still seen and felt over 150 miles away in El Paso. It was the first successful nuclear detonation. Robert Oppenheimer witnessed this at the South 10000-Shelter, 10,000 yards south of Zero. And, after viewing the fireball he was led to famously state: “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” For good reason the quote became iconic. Taken from the Hindu Scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita, Oppenheimer imbued the words with something mysterious, with some pretty damn ominous overtones that also obliquely hinted at his own uncertainty at his role as “the father of the atomic bomb.” Doubts which would of course lead to charges of communism, public humiliation and his security clearance being stripped at the hands of the McCarthy Commission in 1954. But on that morning in 1945, Trinity was a success, and Oppenheimer had reason to feel self-congratulatory. The atmosphere didn’t ignite, the oceans didn’t boil, the fabric of space-time remained untorn, and sure, one could argue that something nearly equally catastrophic was loosed upon the world that morning, and it’s certainly clear that Oppenheimer understood that. But it’s a good quote, and always makes for a strong introductory anecdote. What’s less known, but no less interesting, is what he said the night before, as he stood on one of the wooden observation towers, in the fading light of the New Mexico evening, preparing for the climax to three years of relentless work. He surveyed the Oscuras Mountains along the horizon and spoke the following to himself: “Funny how the mountains always inspire our work.” He said this to no one in particular, almost offhandedly, slightly above a whisper, but it was overheard and recorded by a nearby metallurgist. Scientific discovery is an artistic act of creation where what was imagined in the minds of men is made real. Coming from the creator of one of the most sublime spectacles that few have ever seen, one that leveled cities and changed the course of history, this is both incredible and terrifying.
When you go to The Lightning Field, you have plenty of time to think about The Lightning Field, not only because the field certainly provokes and warrants rumination, but because 24 uninterrupted hours at the site are one of many conditions of admittance. The first of which included me being dropped off at a spartanly decorous log cabin in western central New Mexico, 45 minutes from the nearest town of Quemado (pop. 1500), accompanied by four strangers, with the promise that a truck would return the next day to take us back. Sans phone, email, internet, and after a week of driving, the overall effect of being without my four-wheeled safety blanket was uncanny. Reduced to walking – if there was any where to walk (which aside from The Lightning Field in the high desert plain, there isn’t), I made for shelter inside the cabin. This is how Walter De Maria intended the site to be experienced. “Isolation is the essence of land art,” he says in his notes from 1980. “It is intended that the work be viewed alone or in the company of a very small number of people, over at least a 24-hour people.” As the truck disappeared behind the rim, the isolation part started to set in.
Before proceeding, a brief description of the work is in order. These are the simple things about Lightning Field. It is constructed of 400 highly polished stainless poles 2-inches in diameter with solid, precision-milled solid tips. The poles are plotted on a rectangular grid array measuring one mile east-west, and one kilometer and six meters north-south. Averaging 20 feet 7 ½ inches, the poles range in height from 15 feet to nearly 27 feet. While at first appearance the ground appears flat, it is actually subtly rippling, which the poles take into account. The ground was meticulously surveyed, “laser surveyed” even, so that the height of the tip of each pole would align. In other words, “the plane of the tips would evenly support an imaginary sheet of glass.” All of this information is right there in De Maria’s own writings, conveniently assembled and waiting next to a corner rocking chair. He goes to great pains to elucidate the facts of the work, the siting and fabrication methods.
Factoid 1: Not surprisingly, in a small town, nearly everyone in Quemado has had some hand in the history of Lightning Field. As a high school kid, Robert Weathers helped build the thing 30 years ago and now serves as the site’s permanent caretaker. He also brought us back to town the next day. And when Cheryl took us out to the site, we talked about her history cleaning and polishing each pole. By all measures it’s an ideal high school gig, you’re outside, pay’s good, etc., but De Maria left exacting standards regulating the type of sand paper and cloth to ensure the light would be properly reflected on the steel. Also you can’t help picking up that most of Quemado’s population think there’s something a little ridiculous that people have been coming out to the desert to see the site for last thirty years. Me: “Do you think it’s funny that people go to all this trouble to come out here and see this?” Her: “Yeah, a little.” The relation of time and human aging is also part of the larger discussion provoked by The Lightning Field and will be picked up again further down.
Factoid 2: A brief description of Quemado. Quemado is located at the intersection of I-60 and Highway 117 toward the middle of New Mexico. It’s ranch country, and the drive there is pretty beautiful. The elevation is 6880 feet and it’s centered just east of the continental divide. The Dia Office (The Dia Foundation owns and manages the work) occupies a white washed adobe building on the main stretch of Quemado next to a local café with excellent iced tea, across the street from a fish restaurant that seems to only be open on “Frydays” and walking distance to a small grocery store with a generous collection of mounted deer heads.
Those are the facts of the work, and by themselves they’re not all that exciting. Ordinarily, one may be inclined to think this on par with a Carl Andre, really? who cares? sculpture. But the point is that De Maria also explicitly warns that “the sum of the facts does not constitute the work or determine its esthetics.” Under normal circumstances I would describe those aesthetics as being amazing and remarkable, etc. But nothing about the circumstances of finding oneself in the middle of New Mexico is very normal. This naturally leads to questions surrounding the notion of a pilgrimage.
Equally important to the facts of the work is the manner in which Lightning Field must be viewed. The Dia Foundation, per De Maria’s wishes, accepts up to six people at the site in any 24-hour period between May 1st and October 31st. That makes a maximum of 1104 people per season. Following that logic, over its thirty year history, up to 33,000 people have seen The Lightning Field. By way of comparison, every day 10,000 people walk under the Sistine Chapel daily; which can’t even touch the 25,000 people who daily make the trek to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina. There’s certainly a lot that could be said about the proportional relationship of visitors to a popular creative work and its relative quality (or perceived worth), but that falls outside the scope of this discussion. I bring quantitative numbers up mainly to emphasize the level of control exerted over the site by Dia. Typically reservations have to be made months in advance, so the low numbers in no way denote a lack of interest. Dia also handles reservations and caretaking of the site, and is careful to point out that by preventing vast numbers of people from visiting, the fee for an overnight stay ($250 per person July and August, $150 other months, $100 students) does not begin to cover maintenance expenses. Clearly, and I would say admirably, De Maria was more concerned with controlling the experience rather than opening the floodgates. He obviously isn’t overly concerned with commercial success, and at the same time this brings up probably antiquated 1977 notions of credibility and “selling out.”
Factoid 3: Walter De Maria studied at Berkeley before heading to New York in the 1960s where he fell in with John Cage and Warhol’s happenings. In addition to success as an artist he was also the drummer with the pre-1965, pre-Nico, Velvet Underground. So, the dude’s cool bona fides are secure.
However, regarding the notion of control, it could be argued – and has been argued by MIT critic John Beardsley – that by so precisely controlling the nature of the experience, that is, by leaving only one specific and approved way of interacting with the field open, De Maria crosses the threshold into authoritarianism. One may think they’re essentially free to do as they choose even once they’re at the cabin, yet you’re also acutely aware that De Maria is pretty clear that if you’re not standing in the cool desert air at five in the morning on the southeast corner of the field to greet the sunrise you’re wasting everyone’s time. In effect by dictating the terms of the dialogue, De Maria is precluding the possibility of any spontaneous individual reaction to the work. Beardsley, in his essay “Art and Authoritarianism: Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field,” argues just that. He sees the directive issued by De Maria and Dia as an affront to the viewer, “suggest(ing) that both artist and patron lack confidence in either the quality of the work or the discernment of the viewer. They are therefore being defensive or condescending, neither posture positively predisposing the viewer to the work.”
After having stayed overnight at The Lightning Field, I would argue Beardsley’s hypothesis is wrong on two points but also right on one. There are a few reasons for this, for one, it’s not that his overall premise is wrong, but he’s not exactly right either. And that gets to the crux of The Lightning Field, it is not an “either/or” situation, but a “both/and” type of place. What I mean by that is the first point, that if anything, De Maria and Dia are too overconfident in the quality of the work. There are a number of hurdles one has to jump through, both in financial draws (this is by far the most I’m spending for accommodations on this trip) and time commitments (after driving to and from Quemado you’re looking at two days) for one piece of work and one has to expect the payoff would warrant the pilgrimage. I think Beardsley would argue that the immense exertion of the pilgrimage itself influences and unduly affects any objective response to the work in some Heisenbergian sense. It’s like a giant arrow pointing at “Art” with a capital “A” saying “you will have a glorious response.” But, I don’t really think that matters much, if the response is specious – which I don’t think it is – it’s still a valid response. This is worlds away from a subway ride to MoMa and 30-90 seconds in front of a Monet. Moreover, the stakes of disappointment are raised so high, that the risk is greater demanding a confidence in the work.
Secondly, regarding issues of condescension, I think the problem here is that for an old hand like Beardsley he would instinctively know how to interact with a creative work and could appreciate it from multiple simultaneous angles. However, I don’t think I really would, (returning to the 30 seconds in front of a Monet), so I don’t see De Maria and Dia as being complicit in a scheme to control my reaction in a negative way, but rather as gentle appreciation for my own openness. It would almost be earnest if it weren’t so powerful. De Maria’s documentation painstakingly describes the years of site inspections and surveying, the tedious testing of materials, failed and successful means of fabrication, and a completely thorough accounting of the method of installation to give the visitor an idea of the sheer amount of work that went into putting 400 poles in the desert. The least he could ask in return is that you give the work your full concentration, something impossible in an attention addling museum.
This can quickly devolve into a broader discussion about the optimal setting for experiencing art, and the somewhat narrower concept of what role the museum as a repository or archive of artistic achievements plays. Land art was certainly a reaction against the confines of the museum, and saw, well, land, as the proper enclosure for art. Be aware though, what the museum also provides is access. Something De Maria is limiting (or protecting). So the question becomes, is this central conceit of curatorial control something of a cheat? For example, would someone’s (mine) experience at the Sistine Chapel have been different if I weren’t jostling for position among literally 8000 Germans in short pants? Yeah, probably. So then shouldn’t all works of art demand isolation to be appreciated? As an architect, these queries hold special power regarding issues of aesthetics and designed space, and as a traveler on the road for an extended period of time, they bring up issues of what it means to be a tourist in America and there’s no denying the role these tangential questions play when discussing The Lightning Field.
To paraphrase the late David Foster Wallace, by their very presence a tourist spoils the previously unspoiled place they came to see. And make no mistake; whether high brow Dia art-traveler or flip-flop-clad Midwesterner, you’re still a tourist. That’s what De Maria understood and what Beardsley unknowingly got right. People aren’t always discerning and can and will consume what they can’t control. And that’s why the harsh arithmetic of 1100 people per year makes sense, any more and only the Beardsley’s would enjoy it while the rest of us spent 30-90 seconds taking the same picture of it. We need De Maria to force us to slow down. In this way De Maria kept it eternal.
Factoid 4: Time doesn’t exist at The Lightning Field. Literally, there are no clocks. But it also exists in a perpetual state of newness. The log cabin is new and old, designed and built by De Maria from recycled timbers scavenged from nearby abandoned homesteader’s lots. There is also a shed full of replacement poles, if one is ever damaged, via wind, lightning, vandalism, etc, it will be polished and replaced. And apparently an army of waiting high-schoolers to come out and re-polish each pole in a tediously precise exercise.
Collectively, those are all the thoughts that occupy one’s mind when arriving at the site. The site itself is ringed by distant mountains around the valley that provide a feeling of enclosure. Aside from the lightning field, there are exactly three man-made objects: the cabin, a windmill, and a low-slung juniper fence. One immediately realizes the isolation, cast away into a sea of subtle browns, greens and a big blue. You’re lost, and have the option of Lightning Field or cabin. I chose the Field.
First seeing it, it’s really not that impressive. Intellectually I know there are poles stretching out for a mile, most of which are now invisible, victims of a mirrored reflection and an overhead sun. The poles nearest to me seem tiny, like insignificant needles overshadowed by the landscape. You could say they’re turned off, full of a charged, kinetic energy, which only begins to be visible as the sun goes down.
There’s a reason the only worn trail at the Lightning Field skirts the edges of the poles without venturing inside. Being among the field, a matter of inches from without to within can create an uncanny sense of discomfort. Tilting one’s head slightly allows a view of 25 poles stretching along a mile, but a slight readjustment one way can render 24 invisible while another alley opens up at a diagonal. The sense of space is so architectural, so clearly defined by two-inch diameter poles, that there is a powerful sense of sheltered space within the field. Real or imagined the poles give off a buzzing hum.
I had spent the evening walking the site, and after a less than inspiring, cloud covered sunset, our coterie met up around the table for cheese enchiladas with beans, tortillas and corn. Architecture is all about forcing interactions, and this is like a super-charged Tschumi-like event that actually works. Dinner with strangers can breed profoundly awkward getting-to-know-you questions (“When did you discover your passion for architecture?”) But overall it was good times, we discussed the art scene in Houston (which was blowing up around the same time De Maria left the East Coast for the desert), and everyone could agree that they would rather live in San Francisco. We retired to our rooms and agreed to meet up early, before sunrise early.
1960s/70s art critic and noted Jackson Pollack fanboy Clement Greenberg dismissed land art as being “theatrical.” This is most true with The Lightning Field, but it in no way invalidates the profoundly impressive performance. It’s also what differentiates The Lightning Field from other great works of land art. Spiral Jetty and Double Negative can exist alone, slowly being submerged by the Great Salt Lake or eroding in silence in the desert, but The Lightning Field needs people, in the same way an orchestra needs an audience. This is implicit when Michael Kimmelman, in The Art of Everyday Life, states that The Lightning Field “works – or it can if you’re open to it.” The immediate corollary would be that the poles don’t work – if you’re not there.
They came alive again at 6:02am, as the sky in the east began to glow. The poles were no longer rendered mute, but were rather building to a crescendo. A chorus of subtle hues, constantly morphing pinks, oranges, blood reds. My back was to the sun, but the field was exploding in front of me. At this point, the poles and landscape were working in perfect harmony playing off of each other. Inextricably linked, everything belonged, I became the interloper, the solitary, ascetic figure in a Friedrich painting, engaged in seemingly profound thought. At 6:14am the sun crested the ridgeline and as if on cue the silence was shattered by screaming and chortling from coyotes inside the valley. By 6:47 the sun was high enough that the poles were again fading, silently waiting for the next group of tourists.
Oh yeah, and no, there wasn’t any lightning.
A final note about photography, it’s frustrating, like “trying to fix a spider web with your fingers” level of frustrating, attempting to capture the subtleties and quickly changing and ever so slight play of light on the poles and landscape with a clumsy camera, and I would say they’re a poor attempt at encompassing the work. That said, I hope they at least give some sense of what it’s like.
Or: Weird Shit That In Theory Should Seem Incongruous with the Desert Landscape but is Actually Perfect.
Case in point, the VLA has to exist here. Those things aren’t stationary. The satellites are constantly moving along modified railroad tracks that allow the focus of the array to flux, necessitating a flat landscape to reduce expending energy during their re-arrangements. Secondly, the Plains of San Augustine are flat, but they’re high, the altitude is 7000 ft and helps ensure the clarity of the received solar signals. Lastly, the plains are encircled by a number of mountain ranges that block terrestrial radio signals from interfering with the delicate equipment.
Plus the invisible radio waves tethering VLA to distant space anomalies make for a nice compliment to Buzz Aldrin’s visual correlation between the high desert and the “magnificent desolation” of the lunar landscape. But, not surprisingly, Cormac McCarthy provides the strongest portrait of the landscape: “Below them in the paling light smoldered the plains of San Agustin stretching away to the northeast, the earth floating off in a long curve silent under looms of smoke from the underground coal deposits burning there a thousands years. The horses picked their way along the rim with care and the riders cast varied glances out upon that ancient and naked land.”