Waiting around for the sky to do something is a bit like waiting for romance. You can understand the conditions, you can try to position yourself just so, you can consult an app. But when the moment comes, no amount of pressure, logic, or beseeching can force the clouds to part. Or to come together.
Walter De Maria’s The Lightning Field is a piece of land art in western New Mexico whose very name seems to be an exhortation to stand still and wait for something to strike. Completed in 1977, the installation comprises four hundred stainless steel poles with pointed tips arranged in a grid one mile long by one kilometer, toothpicks glinting on a flat and isolated semiarid stretch. The few publicly available photos of The Lightning Field promote the myth of its promise: an expanse of rods that reach up and draw down electricity from the sky.
But as a guide to the work notes, “the sum of the facts does not constitute the work or determine its aesthetics.” Fair enough. Still, a few more facts, particularly about how to see the work, are illuminating: Only six people can view the work per overnight session, and only during the visiting season, which runs from May to October. And one does not simply walk into a field of poles: The address is not made public and no signs lead the way. Visitors must be taken by a staff member of the Dia Art Foundation, which commissioned and maintains the work, from the pickup spot, a three-hour drive from the nearest major airport, in Albuquerque. During the high season, in July and August, the required overnight stay in the cabin that abuts the field costs $250 a person ($150 in the low season ). There is no wi-fi, no cell service, and no way to leave until your time is up.
It seems at once risky, pretentious, and incredibly boring: drop a couple hundred dollars for the chance to see lightning strike one of a few hundred steel poles left by a dead artist in the American Southwest. Yet passing twenty-four hours in which there’s no task other than to stare rapt at one piece of art hones time and awareness to a spear-like point.
The Lightning Field, viewers realize over the course of the day, is a work that comes alive not with lightning but with lightening. The poles reflect changes in light and color, so in the middle of the day, with the sun straight overhead, the work disappears almost completely. Visitors typically arrive at the cabin in early afternoon. They drop their bags and bound eagerly for the back door of the cabin, only to find an invisible work.
At the extreme ends of the day, the field becomes a clock. When the sun is at the horizon, it’s at its farthest from us, so most of the blue in its light is scattered before it reaches the eye. In the final hour of daylight, bright, solid white becomes warm, wheat yellow, turns gold, then a dusty rose, before finally turning a silvery violet. An invisible gate becomes a field of toothpicks, which become blinding weapons, which then fade into darkness. Visitors witness time ticking and the sun slipping away in a new form. A sunset, something usually viewed in the sky, becomes a blanket of light moving through a field of metal. And then, if the sky is still clear, the dark makes room for the Milky Way.
The next morning, the devoted rise before the sun and watch as the blue-black lightens, as the invisible once more becomes visible, spectacular, and then, for a few moments, blinding.
I wonder, Does the field look cool when there’s lightning? If the conditions were good for lightning, they’d be bad for a sunset, I decide. Or maybe these are things I have to tell myself—I tell myself—because I was not one of the lucky few.
Seeing lightning strike quickly becomes, if not a side thought, then a possible red herring. As one stares out at the sea of shining points, the piece provokes a pair of thoughts common to works of art worth spending any time with: That’s not the point, followed by: Or is that the point? From the moment when, months in advance, you hit pay now on $1,500 for a party of six, the expectations are, well, sky-high. The title of the work seduces visitors into a state of FOMO, setting up the possibility of a “happening” that will be over in a flash. Add to that the fact that video and photography are prohibited, and that the images that are publicly available are strictly meted out by Dia, and the experience becomes packaged in a tissue paper of anticipation, an emotion that at its core demands its own demise.
It’s just as well that photos aren’t allowed. Attempts at capturing the work are invariably disappointing. In close-up: a metal pole; at a wide angle: a stretch of bushes with little lines staggered throughout. Perhaps, it cannot be stressed enough, that is not the point. A photo wouldn’t capture the rest of the trip—because that’s really what this experience is.
The Lightning Field isn’t some big spiral in the sea you can drive your car to for free. Remote, expensive, named for a phenomenon that by the guide’s own admission has a 10 percent chance of happening, with a sleeping arrangement that sounds like a reclusive millionaire’s social experiment or the setup for a hipster whodunit, the work is inseparable from the attention it demands at every level. It doesn’t begin with a flash in a field, or at the car drop-off; it begins with time booked. It begins with the agreement to be inconvenienced.
Like other trips taken in adulthood, the hassle and the destination define each other, and meaning is made from the vacation requests and logistics emails and missed trains and speeding tickets along the way. Even the last stop before Quemado, where the Dia office is, seems like a carefully constructed artifice to amuse out-of-town pilgrims: Pie-O-Neer, a pie shop located in Pie Town, population 111.
As early as 1938, the literary critic and teacher of pedagogy Louise Rosenblatt argued for a transactional relationship between reader and work. She rejected the impulse to interpret based only on what’s “evident” in the text, and insisted that the reader “counts for at least as much as the book or poem itself.” “We need to find out what happens when specific human beings, with their interests and anxieties, participate in the emotional and intellectual life that books make possible,” she wrote. The literary work, as she saw it, was not something that happened to the reader or that the reader happened upon. Rather, she wrote in 1966, “under the guidance of the text… the reader makes a new ordering, the formed substance which is for him the literary work of art.” This, she believed, was the real process of creative activity.
The art pilgrimage, and inconvenient art more generally, adds to the formation of the work. To the specific individual’s interests and anxieties, layer in hunger pangs, a flat tire, a leaky tampon, budding love. De Maria’s field is, yes, one man’s towering ego trip, but individual memory looms as large as the southwestern sky.
A few days before getting to The Lightning Field, we were driving from Santa Fe to Fort Davis, in western Texas, on our way to a night viewing at the McDonald Observatory. We were already cutting it close when someone realized that Texas and New Mexico are in different time zones. We were suddenly an hour short on the road to the star party.
Earlier that day, the sky had been a life-affirming blue slashed by cartoon rows of puffy white, but by the time we were racing south from the state border, the weather had turned, or we had turned into some weather. Rain came in thick curtains, making it impossible to see, and thunder shook our little hearts. It felt as though fire and brimstone were flanking our drive through a southern apocalypse—because there was actual fire all around. Thin metal towers on either side of the highway shot great orange plumes of fire into the black night, a process called flaring, in which natural gases are burned off from oil wells. And everywhere, everywhere, cruel, awesome, ceaseless bolts of lightning came down.
We made our way out of the storm and crawled up an unlit mountain road with almost no time left at the event. We climbed to the viewing platform, dots of moisture kissing our faces as we tried to make out the stars behind the clouds. There was nothing to see. We got back into the car and went to find our beds. The following night, driving home, I looked out the window and felt a tingle sweep across my shoulder blades. A fathomless canopy spread out overhead. The Milky Way was a river of purple and pepper. We stopped the car and exclaimed in a moment of earthly romance.
- Renting out the entire cabin during the pandemic costs between $600 and $1,500.