[Originally for Art is Fear for 12 January 2013]
I visited Walter De Maria’s The Lightning Field for my birthday a couple years ago. Located in the high desert of western New Mexico,The Lightning Field is an important work of land art that the DIA Art Foundation commissioned in the 1970s. It consists of four hundred two inch wide metal pointed rods averaging about 20 feet high placed evenly across a one mile by one kilometer field leveled to a uniform height so that a sheet of glass could sit flat on top of the rods. Visitors (only six at a time as decreed by the artist) spend the night in a refurbished but spare cabin at the edge of the field observing the work from an infinite number of angles. You can sit on the porch and gaze at the entire artwork from afar, or walk around and through the rods in any direction and configuration you choose. Lightning typically, though rarely, strikes the rods in July and August, however the artwork can be enjoyed no matter when you go and regardless of whether lightning strikes because its beauty transforms throughout the day and seasons as the sun changes its position across the sky.
The long journey to The Lightning Field is as much a part of experiencing the artwork as the thing itself. After flying into Albuquerque, you drive another three hours to the town of Quemado. You are instructed to look for a two story white building on the north side of the road, which is the DIA office where you meet the installation’s caretaker who will then drive you another 45 minutes to the cabin where he will leave you to experience this work of art.
When we arrived at he DIA office, the door was open but no one was in the building and the town appeared to have been abandoned. My friends and I sat on the front stoop waiting for something to happen for about 20 minutes before a very large Chevy Tahoe roared up in a dusty cloud and out stepped Robert Weathers, the caretaker. He wore Wrangler jeans that sported a thin white line down the front of each leg where they’d been pressed probably after each washing, a classic western style shirt neatly tucked into his pants that were held up by a wide leather belt and a bucking bronco belt buckle, deeply creased brown leather boots that looked like they’d become one with his feet, and a black felt cowboy hat that looked brand new. Robert had a square jaw, bright blue eyes, large hands, broad shoulders, and the kind of rugged good looks that generally appear in John Wayne westerns.
Robert told us that we had to wait for two more people before he could take us to the cabin. He then turned to me and asked, “Do you play ping pong?” I don’t know why he asked me and not the others. Did he know that I fancied myself quite deft with a paddle having played hundreds of hours of table tennis in the basement of my childhood home? His eyes flickered ever so slightly with anticipation when I quickly agreed to the challenge.
We battled back and forth for a couple games, barely speaking to each other except for calling out the score before each serve. He was a formidable opponent and my competitive juices kicked in as I started to realize that this cowboy had some game. I was starting to sweat when the other guests arrived. We finished playing and shook hands, each of us having notched one in the win column.
We hopped into the Tahoe and headed out of town and back into the desert. I sat in the front seat with Robert and peppered him with questions about his life. He had helped build The Lightning Field and the cabin and had been its only caretaker since the project was completed in 1977. He had visited the DIA office in New York City once and predictably hadn’t taken kindly to city life. He lived nearby with his girlfriend who stocked the cabin with food and cleaned up after each day’s guests.
We drove along the main road for about 20 minutes before we turned down a bumpy road and then veered off on an even bumpier road toward the cabin where we would spend the night. There wasn’t much to look at along the way – dry cracked earth, dusty sagebrush, and occasional herds of animals in the distance. Robert said the road had been covered with water and then mud through most of September and had dried out only the previous week.
Though The Lightning Field covered a large patch of land, we could hardly see the lightning rods as we approached the cabin. The sun was still very high in the sky, which made the rods almost invisible in the glare of midday light. The small cabin contained only the basic necessities: dining table and a few extra chairs, beds, some linens, and a large green chile casserole in the frig for dinner and eggs and bacon for breakfast. There were no pictures on the walls, no television or radio or electronics of any sort, and no cell phone reception whatsoever. Robert showed us the ancient telephone we could use to call him if we needed help and then he left.
After settling in, we explored the field for a couple hours, tramping our way through the sagebrush between the rows of rods, getting a feel for the magnitude of the space, and feeling pretty special that we were roaming around inside a work of art. As the sun began to set, we sat on the porch and watched the tips of the rods glint and shimmer like stars in the sky until it was too dark to see anything at all. After dinner, we went back outside to gaze up into the heavens unadulterated by man made light and to breathe the cool dry desert air. The sky was a heavy dome of stars pushing down on us, and it felt like we had to duck to avoid bumping our heads on something celestial.
The next day, we woke before dawn and each of us set out in a different direction with mats and blankets that we’d found in the storage room. I walked to where I thought I’d be in about the center of the field and laid down and watched darkness turn into pale early light, and watched the sun’s rays begin to work their magic on the rods again. As I lay in the field in the utter stillness of early morning, a large black bird flew over me and I could hear the wind move through its wings flapping slowly and gracefully overhead. I’d never heard this sound before and flight seemed so incredible and impossible to me at that moment. The aching, joyfulness of experiencing perfect beauty welled up inside me again and I lay there until it became impossible to bear.
Later that morning, Robert picked us up at the appointed time to take us back to Quemado where we had left our rental car for the night. He and I played one last game of ping-pong before we left. (I won.) The Lightning Field had been extraordinary despite the cloudless sky and lack of lightning and I eagerly added it to mycollection of beautiful art experiences that could never be recreated in exactly the same way and that had no objects with which to commemorate it.