Will we see the lighting-flash of Being, in the essence of technology? The flash that comes out of stillness, as stillness itself?
-- Martin Heidegger (1)
Unlike Smithson’s Spiral Jetty or Heizer’s Double Negative, which have been abandoned to the elements, Lighting Field is intended to be seen and the site maintained. A Depression-era cabin has been renovated to house visitors, who must book well in advance and are ferried to and from the site by employees based in Quemado (2). Stays are limited to one night. It takes about forty minutes to get to the Field from Quemado, a switchback ride along dirt roads without signposts that is more like being taken to some secret government installation than a well known art work. This is, of course, more or less what is happening (3).
No photography is allowed at the Lightning Field and camera equipment can be stored at the Quemado office. While this certainly reduces the proliferation of images of the work, which tend to be the oft reproduced, highly dramatic shots of a lightning bolt striking one of the poles, the main reason for the ban on picture-taking is more to do, it would seem, with discouraging visitors from wasting their time trying to photograph the thing. For, as De Maria well knows, the Lightning Field slips in and out of sight, the extent of its surface area is impossible to read by eye, and by the time one has moved back far enough to see the whole Field in its entirety, it hardly seems to be there at all. 'No photograph,' De Maria has written, 'group of photographs or other recorded images can completely represent The Lightning Field' (4).
It is impossible not to look for symmetries and sight lines when viewing The Lightning Field. At the same time, it is impossible to see the whole work at once. From inside the Field, where De Maria says the 'primary experience takes place,' it soon becomes difficult to tell where you are within the grid and the poles appear to extend infinitely in all directions. In effect, it becomes an invisible labyrinth, the poles appearing to defy the known fact that they run in parallel lines and instead seem to be randomly scattered over the plain. They also appear and disappear according to light and position, two inch diameter reflective strips producing sharp curious creases in the vertical plane.
The night of our visit in 2002 was one of the three in thirty. By seven in the evening the sky has turned a dark gray-blue with rain on the horizon, and thunder rumbles in the distance. The cloud is very heavy and almost white with a steel-blue edge. Then there is a fantastic spike of lightning visible over the mountains. During the next hour the storm visibly moves toward the cabin, the lightning sometimes in light bulb pops, then as shooting shafts of crisp white light down the mountains. Twice, big flashes illuminate the Field and the rods stand out hard and impassive. As the rain falls heavily by 8 pm, all visibility is gone. It is, in fact, relatively rare for lightning to strike the poles -- 'The light is as important as the lightning,' claims De Maria -- but the Field's four hundred invitations do produce immense anticipation. As Kenneth Baker has observed, the lightning most likely to strike is 'psychological rather than metereological.' Baker sees the work as 'a device for coaxing into consciousness one's worst fears about the present moment and direction of history' while at the same time 'intensifying one's grasp of the beauty of the earth' (6).
Regardless of conditions, it is hard not to stand pensively before -- or within -- The Lightning Field. The site is that of an event, it is a place where something has happened or will at some unforeseeable point. The poles are like monitoring devices, antennae tuned to some inaudible frequency. Or they are themselves aligned to an invisible target in an unascertainable location, merely waiting to be activated. Or they are, more benignly, some sort of complex meteorological or electrical device for measuring air pressure, precipitation levels, electrical storms, wavelengths, electromagnetic pulses. Who knows? There is an undeniable temptation to imagine some undisclosed function, to project instrumentality onto these shafts of steel. It has something to do, undoubtedly, with their factory-turned perfection, the firm math of their grid, the purposeful way the Field appears to be waiting for something.