The Lightning Field
SATURDAY NIGHT magazine, December, 1997
“Have you heard of the Lightning Field?” my friend Frank asked as we sat waiting for menus in a café in Victoria. I said I hadn’t. He cocked his head, as if downloading the recollection from some deep data bank. “It’s out in the middle of the New Mexican desert. Quite a place. Hard to describe.” A few seconds of silence passed. “It’s a couple of hours from Albuquerque. I can’t tell you where.”
“Because I don’t know. It’s not on the map, and it’s not really near anything. You can’t drive there yourself. You drive to a small town, and you leave your car there. A caretaker pickes you up and you travel through the dust for awhile. You stop at one point at a gate into a ranch, and then you go further until finally you see an old cabin. The caretaker drops you off there, and that’s where you stay.” As Frank spoke, I heard his voice catch a couple of times. I wondered if he had a cold coming on.
“They leave food for you in the cabin, and there are beds. Out on the front deck there are some chairs.”
“What do you do there?” I asked.
“You look. You listen. You wait.”
“For the lightning.”
“Frank closed his eyes like a narcoleptic. He didn’t look unhappy. Something had happened to him out there, wherever there was. I wouldn’t begin to understand quite what until, eight months later, I received a phone call telling me that Frank had died.
“Out here we don’t talk in acres much,” says Karen Weathers, navigating the GM Suburban over the cattle guard and through the gate to the biggest spread of private land I have ever been on. In New Mexico they talk in sections. There are 640 acres to a section, and Dia owns twenty-three sections – which amounts to the whole New Mexican desert as far as I can see.
Dia is the Dia Art Foundation of New York, a body dedicated to, among other things, funding and maintaining land art — man-made monuments in remote parts of rural America. We are in Kittram County, thirty-five or so miles east o Quemado, where I exchanged my rental car for blind trust in Ms. Weathers. She’s not what I expected—a young Frances McDormand where I had in mind Peter Lorre. She is the caretaker of the Lightning Field. In four years she has riven 1500-odd people from around the world out here for an experience that often leaves them permanently changed, though rarely in ways they can explain.
I had arrived at the Albuquerque airport with no plan but to find this place. All I knew was what Frank had told me that bright day at lunch. The locals I met had never heard of it, and it was by chance that I finally found someone who knew someone and wrote down a phone number on a packet of sugar. The Lightning Field is open to visitors six months of the year, from the beginning of May to the end of October. No more than six people are permitted to view it at a time, and only advance written requests are considered. After explaining that I’d come from Canada just to see the field, I was squeezed in—though the spontaneous-pilgrimage story was clearly one they’d heard before, and had the booking sheet been full I would have been on the next plane back to Vancouver.
I am not alone here. Peter Healey, a photographer from Massachusetts, and Tom Arthur, a sculptor and university professor from Sydney, Australia—old friends from art school in Boston—have come to cap a reunion trip across the Southwest. For Arthur, the Lightning Field is the cobbler’s unmended shoe. Until now he has been too busy lecturing on it to actually come and see it. Healey has his camera with him, out of sight in his overnight bag. Photos are discouraged, if not expressly forbidden. “This is a privately owned work of art,” a Dia employee, Kathleen Shields, told me. “We want to limit how widely the image of the piece is distributed out in the world.” Two years ago, Dia threatened action against the producers of Lightning Field, an American cable movie in with an environmental artist played by Nancy McKeon gets crosswise with a satanic cult at an art installation very like this one. (The producers backed off, renamed their picture The Lightning Incident, and redesigned the ads.)
Weathers lets us out in front of a cabin that looks just as Frank described it – a 1920 homesteaer’s lodge of rough-hewn pine, warty and solitary on a low scrub flat of pinon bushes and Torry yucca. She will leave us here overnight. “Watch out for rattlesnakes,” she says. The snakes have been around more frequently since Dia got rid of its cats, and now, when guests leave the doors open, the snakes sometimes come into the cabin and find a corner to sleep in. When this occurs, Weathers comes round with a shotgun and blasts the snake where it lies. She promises to return the next ay at 11 am, and then she gets into the truck and drives off.
Inside the cabin are an airtight stove and a couple of heavy oak mission chairs. Old wood with new fixtures, old iron beds with crisp, clean sheets. Rustic living without the hardships. Inexplicably, here in the geographic centre of nowhere, there is running water and electricity. Yet there are no power lines. A buried cable brings the power in, which contributes to the illusion that the cabin is magically self-sustaining.
We put down our gear and get our first full-on look to the west. There, in the desert, 7,200 feet above sea level, is the Lightning Field: 400 polished stainless-steel poles sharpened to points, like giant silver knitting needles arranged in a grid a mile by a kilometer. This is the chef’d’oeuvre of sculptor Walter de Maria, who approached this project with a jeweller’s eye and a geometer’s rigour. Sixteen (four squared) poles by twenty-five (five squared) making 400 (twenty squared). The measurements are so precise that an imaginary sheet of glass placed on top of the poles would be perfectly, evenly supported. Distances between the poles—220 feet—are accurate to within one-twenty-fifty of an inch. From any direction, the rows appear to stretch to infinity.
De Maria spend five years searching for this spot. He scoured California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah and Texas before settling, in 1977, on this isolated plain—isolation being, in his view, the essence of land art. Unlike Robert Smithson, who chose Great Salt Lake for his famous Spiral Jetty partly because it was supposed to be an energy vortex, De Maria was looking for a more pedestrian combination of virtues: it had to be a flat, lonely spread in an area of high lightning activity. There are roughly sixty days a year when lightning can be seen from the Lightning Field. In the summer, changes of seeing some are good. In the summer, lightning comes in with what the Navajo call “male rain”—that hard rain that falls in big drops—as distinct from the gentler female rain that falls between November and March.
I had a taste of a New Mexico lightning storm two days earlier when, as I was travelling north from the Chihuahuan desert, a storm brewed up in the east. Sheet lightning bounced around up there, looking for a way out, and every fifteen seconds or so the cloud put down a big fork. National Public Radio was playing a jazz suite to which the lightning seemed somehow choreographed. The British composer George Benjamin, I remembered reading, had been inspired by a New Mexico thunderstorm to write “Ringed by the Flat Horizon”—all soft bell chords and tremors in the lower registers. NPR kept interrupting its programming to upgrade the storm warnings: severe lighning-storm warning, tornado warning, and then: “Radar has picked up a tornado heading directly for Caprock, New Mexico. Residents of Caprock are advised to take cover.” The announced dropped his broadcast diction. “Go down into the basement and cover yourself with cushions.” Caprock was about forty miles to the east. This storm, now moving at about the speed I was driving, would sweep east, pick up steam, and kill fourteen people in Texas.
When lightning strikes a pole at the Lightning Field it generally melts the steel at the tip, blunting it, and the pole has to be replaced. But this happens so infrequently—maybe once or twice a season—that it’s hardly worth thinking about. People who come to the Lightning Field aren’t storm-chasers. A lot of them are art students, paying homage to what’s acknowledged as one of the most important earthworks in America. (A few pilgrims do both Donald Judd’s place at Marfa, Texas, and the Lightning Field, in a kind of double-shrine swing.) Earthworks are those conceptual pieces, monumental in sale but minimal in form, that went up mostly in the seventies, when people such as Michael Heizer, Robert Morris, Smithson and De Maria took it as their mission to rescue art from preciosity and re-pot it well away from the city. New land art still gets done—James Turrell is still working on his big crater near Flagstaff, Arizona—but for the most part the movement has been paved over by the next phase of public art: big urban projects people can actually see without renting a Land Rover and taking time off work.
Every visitor, Karen Weathers told us, has a unique response to the poles. Some climb them. (“Very disrespectful,” said Kathleen Shields.) One man, inexplicably, mummified himself from head to toe in aluminum foil and went running among the poles, hoping to attract a charge. (It was a clear day.) Some self-impose a vow of silence. De Maria recommends the work be viewed alone, or with a small number of people over at least a twenty-four hour period. Visitors, he believes, must wander about and see the poles from all perspectives. Watch them pick up light in the morning and let it go at night. The Lightning Field resists comparison to anything else. But I came to think of it as an image of Jesus in a plate of billboard spaghetti, drawing travelers off the blue highways, giving them a brief, shared common experience, some life-leavening mystery.
Certainly, coming here is the closest a lot of middle-class white folk such as Tom, Peter and I will ever come to a spirit quest. The aim, quite literally, is enlightenment. The whole exercise recalls the line from the class Buddhist text The Bodhicaryavatara: “As when a flash of lightning cleaves the night, and … virtuous thoughts rise, brief and transient, in the world.” We cannot muster virtuous thoughts, so we decide to tell stories instead.
Peter, who from some angles looks just like Bill Clinton, sits on a porch chair and peers into the distance. It’s ust. The air is thin and dry, crisping the edges of everything. He begins with a tale of his music teacher back home in Massachusetts. The teacher’s mother, who apparently has some psychic gifts, has been plagued by Southwest indigenous imagery so vivid she is compelled to get into her car and drive to New Mexico. She arrives in the middle of a freak snowstorm. She can barely see the road. Suddenly an animal darts in front of her car. It’s a white coyote – a sight so novel she is moved to mention it when she arrives in the next village. The villagers’ reaction is startling. Turns out the local shaman has just died. When a shaman dies,his soul is said to take the form of a white coyote. “The first person to see the white coyote,” the villager explains, “becomes the next shaman.” Peter’s friend’s mother did not stick around for the formal initiation. She now lives in Calgary and has a postgraduate degree in chaos theory.
The stars are out in force over the desert. The low light has lent my cabinmates a sinister air. Can I trust them? Possibly they wonder if they can trust me. If this were a Tony Hillerman novel, one of us would now turn into a shape-shifting Navajo witch and take out the other two with a shiv made from a human femur. Dia would be party to it. Earlier, Arthur noticed there was enough bacon in the cabin’s fridge to clog the arteries of half a dozen really big men. “That’s what they do,” he concluded. “After you’re dead they come in and take your passports and sell them, and then they prepare for the next earthwork. See those three mounds out there.”
There’s nothing to do but wait. In this, we are not alone. Waiting is New Mexico’s unofficial pastime. The whole state sits face-to-the-night in a kind of suspension. Near Jemez Springs, in the cold mountains northeast of Santa Fe, five young Ohioans pass a joint counterclockwise around the fire, steam from a mineral spring frosting their beards. They are waiting for the economy to turn, the snow to melt, their coffee to run out; waiting to get back into the water. At Bandelier National Monument in Frijoles Canyon, a kiva built by the Anasazi lies unexcavated—waiting for the hands of future archaeologists who, it’s assumed, will have more sophisticated methods of digging, preserving, dating. Tim McVeigh passed through this town, perhaps stopping briefly for gas or a smoke, after hatching a bomb plot in Kingman, Arizona, and driving easy along Route 66 to carry it out. Now everybody waits for the next McVeigh to come around, tor the violence inherent in a fringe of the American right to bite in.
My friend Frank was waiting too. Looking at this landscape, maybe sitting right in this chair, he was staring down his own mortality. Frank had AIDS. He hadn’t told anybody. I imagine him peering out at the poles, in twilight, as they stood out against the distance Sawtooth Mountains like the gradations on a thermometer. He was here with a friend. What did they talk about? Favorite movie exit lines. The gratuitious precision of Mr. Walter De Maria. Anything, everything, but the Big Thing. Maybe they took a little peyote and saw the nearest silver pole as the lance of the Caballero de la Triste Figure: Don Quixote.
I have no idea whether lighting stuck on the night Frank was here. I have a romantic notion that one bolt fell like the finger of God. But of course that couldn’t actually have happened. Lightning does not fall. I was surprised to learn, in the same way I was surprised to learn that the North Star is not fixed, that lightning isn’t a single charge. There are two strokes. One leaves the sky for the ground, and another leaves the ground for the sky. And somewhere in the middle, they meet.