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.