The late artist and musician Walter De Maria's The Lightning Field (1977) is an immersive Land Art sculpture composed of four hundred stainless steel rods gridded out in the high desert of western New Mexico. The artist's parameters for viewing the work are explicit, stewarded by the original commissioner, the Dia Art Foundation. Viewing is roughly a twenty-four hour experience. Visitors lodge in a former homesteader's cabin and dine on prepared offerings. The number of visitors is capped at six; if there are fewer in your party, your reservation will most assuredly be bundled with strangers. Reservations open March 1st for visits seven days a week May through October. July and August are "lightning season" and these reservations cost a premium. Though comparatively expensive when considering that many art experiences are free, a visit to The Lightning Field is on par with the cost of staying in a decent hotel, seeing a show and dining out a few times, except, of course, for the fact that you cook your own meals with strangers in a very rustic splintery-spidery log cabin and hope for lightning to strike the property.
I had reservations in mid-August last year. The drive from Albuquerque -- some two hours, no public transportation -- wends through the breathtaking landscape of El Malpais National Monument, the result of a volcanic eruption 3000 years ago. On one side of the road massive lava flows are frozen in time, on the other Basalt columns extend up to the rolling clouds overhead. Some of the oldest Douglas Fir trees on the planet live in the monument, which was used as a bombing range to test pilots during World War II. El Malpais' surreal lava fields and ghostly La Ventana Arch is, without a doubt, one of the most incredible landscapes I've ever seen.
Visitors meet at Dia's office in the small town of Quemado (pop. 906), a short distance beyond El Malpais, and are instructed to check in at the white two-story building on the main street. It is, in fact, the only two-story building on a quiet stretch of road featuring fewer than a dozen buildings, including a cafe, a hardware shop, and what appeared to be a perpetually closed gallery, its entrance graced with dozens of sun bleached antlers arranged in a decorative arch. When I inquired about buying wine at the country store, the young woman at the counter harrumphed and jutted her chin eastward. Apparently the only gas station in this otherwise dry community recently began selling cheap wine, undoubtedly to the relief of a few townsfolk, many art tourists and this writer in particular. I visited a few of the other open businesses and chatted with bemused locals. None had ever visited The Lightning Field. (Writer and curator Lucy Lippard recently remarked, "Land Art is for city people." Nowhere does this seem more apropos than Quemado.) A young man in the hardware store told me he was sure lightning hitting the rods would scare the crap out of him. I laughed and wondered if I felt the same way.
A Swiss and a French couple on a marathon Land Art tour joined my husband and me as we waited at the Dia office. Robert Weathers, one of the original builders who worked with De Maria and the caretaker to this day, met our group to shuttle us out to the field. We chatted a little as we drove, but mostly we all took in the landscape, scanning the horizon and waiting to see glints of metal. When we arrived at mid-afternoon, the sculpture was barely visible in the field. As the day wore on dramatic changes in visibility arose from imperceptible shifts in sunlight, and reflections formed prismatic patterns across the distance of the sculpture. At various times different guests would walk out to the field and gradually disappear into the distance, only to reemerge on the horizon as they returned an hour or two later.
My perception of the work was shaped by the details I found walking between the rods in the field as much as it was by looking at the sculpture from the shaded porch of the cabin. I had never walked in the desert and I was entranced. I saw nature I hadn't seen before, including three different pre-historic looking beetles, as brilliant as rubies and sapphires, industrious red ants scurrying over hills that rivaled the pyramids, and elephantine piles of sun baked shit from wandering cows, a marvel unto themselves.
There were also small deliberate interventions. At the outer edge of the grid, away from the cabin, I found and left undisturbed a small, recently dated memorial. Nearer the cabin, a bone-dry vertebrae large enough to belong to a small person, but more likely that of a big animal, was strung out on the ground. On the corners of the cabin, handsome rocks ranging from ochre to cinnabar had been carried in from the field and arranged on the log ends.
When the sun went down, our little group opened successive bottles of gas station wine and toasted the moonlit field. We marveled at the galaxy of stars spread out before us and watched silently as lightning chased a storm away in the far distance. No lightning struck during our visit, but I was not disappointed. If lightning had struck, we would have been confined to the cabin as spectators, probably jammed together on the porch. Because it hadn't, we were at liberty to roam and to discover the work in broad swaths and fine details. "Isolation," wrote the artist in Artforum in 1977, "is the essence of Land Art." Though it may not have been as hard to come by in the first few decades of the work's existence, solitude is a particularly rare gift in today's atmosphere of constant connectivity. Perhaps due to the absence of lightning, everything became the artwork in my mind: the journey through El Malpais, my conversations in Quemado, and the sculpture, of course, but also the shared meals with strangers, the spectacular nature, the roughshod cabin. Ultimately my experience of The Lightning Field wasn't of lightning at all. It might have been different from what the artist envisioned, but it was still of his creation.
Walter De Maria's The Lightning Field is located on private property in Western New Mexico and is maintained by the Dia Art Foundation. Reservations for this year's visiting season open Saturday, March 1, 2014. Find more details at diaart.org.