Thursday, October 08, 2009

Lightning Field

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)

Walter De Maria's Lightning Field (1977) is a one mile by one kilometer square grid of four hundred highly polished stainless steel poles. There are sixteen poles north to south, twenty-five poles east to west, placed 225 feet apart. Each pole is a different height to accommodate the variations in the terrain, ranging from 15.07 feet to 26.72 feet, so that their needle-pointed tops form an level plane. The Field is set on a flat plain in west central New Mexico, over seven thousand feet above seas level. It is an area that seasonally expects electric storms three days in thirty.


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).

The management of access and the banning of photography distinguish The Lightning Field among the major U.S. land art projects of the 1960s and 70s as uniquely restrictive. There is here, unlike at Spiral Jetty, Nancy Holt's Sun Tunnels, or Double Negative, a clear sense of ownership and control, even though the other sites are also the property of art world insiders (5). What also distinguishes the Field from these other works is its refusal to capitulate to the environment: the tips of the poles do comprise a level plane, regardless of the ground underneath. There is no erosion here; the poles are regularly polished. Yet while the restrictions may feel like a kind of Cold War frostiness -- this is New Mexico -- they are intended to serve the austere focus of the work and in a sense to protect it from being reduced to another tourist site on the trail. 'Isolation is the essence of land art,' writes De Maria, and the bareness of the land upon which the Field stands, along with the minimum of human contact and the divestment of the optical crutch of the camera as framing device, does strip away distraction and leave the work to stand as alone as it can be.

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.

There is in The Lightning Field, claims Neville Wakefield, 'a hostility to nature manifest in the diffuse sadism of the sharpened poles, their highly polished surfaces and denial of topographical variance' (7). This may be a little strong, for although the poles do, perhaps, resemble weapons, they are also beckoning nature to come forth, drawing its electrical force back to earth through themselves as medium. And while indeed there is an assertion of mathematical regularity in the emplacement of the poles and a refusal to follow the contours of the land upon which they stand, this is not by definition a sign of hostility toward nature, although it does signal the ability of abstraction to override contingency. While the ground could have been levelled to allow poles of equal height to stand evenly, instead the height of the poles is adjusted to present a regular plane that sits invisibly above a ground that maintains its natural unevenness. There is a difference here, and it is the manufactured poles that have been manipulated, not the ground itself. The regularity of height is hard to see -- harder to see, I would imagine, than if the plain had been bulldozed to a perfect surface -- but it is there, a grid of polished tips embodying an abstract order of mathematical measurements that stands above the plain in a fashion similar to the way the grid of a map is laid over terrain but invisible from the ground. Of course, this is a rationalizing of space and does suggest an indifference to local modulations on the surface. Such an overlay does not in itself, however, constitute hostility to nature. It does, though, undoubtedly suggest a means of control and management, a way of dividing and regulating the amorphousness of land. It also demonstrates the strength of abstract systems: such a mathematical grid is infinitely extendable. All space can lie equally beneath its lines, which remain unperturbed by the irregularities of natural history. Part of the power of The Lightning Field, part of what makes the site pregnant with anticipation, is this way it reveals the power of mathematical and technological regulation and how such power intersects with, and is in tense dialogue with, forces of another order: mass, gravity, velocity, electricity.

1. Martin Heidegger, 'The Turning' (1949), in The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, trans. William Lovitt (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), p. 49.
2. When I asked the driver, Robert, how long he had been taking people to the site his answer was suitably taciturn: every day, May through October, for twenty-five years. De Maria has written that 'Part of the essential content of the work is the ratio of people to the space: a small number of people to a large amount of space.' Walter De Maria, 'The Lightning Field,' Artforum 18.8 (April 1980): 52-57.
3. Kenneth Baker claims that the work's suggestion of 'some sort of "big science" instrumentation whose function is obscured by unseen tiers of power' is 'eerily appropriate' since the DIA Foundation, which funded the work, obtained its resources 'from labyrinthine structures of international finance secured ultimately from military power.' Kenneth Baker, Minimalism (New York: Abbeyville, 1988), p. 127.
4. De Maria, 'The Lightning Field,' pp. 52-57.
5. Spiral Jetty is also owned by the DIA Foundation. The Museum of Modern Art, Los Angeles, owns Double Negative.

6. Baker, Minimalism, p. 127.
7. Neville Wakefield, 'Walter De Maria: Measure and Substance,' Flash Art 28. 182 (May–June 1995), pp. 91–94