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Wednesday, July 21, 2004

A Pilgrimage to The Lightning Field (Part 1 of 2)

Since finishing my last post, I’ve been thinking about times when I’ve made a special trip to see art and whether I’ve felt that the trip was worth the effort.

Like others who have a passion for the arts, I’ve done my share of cultural tourism. One of the main purposes for a trip I made to Scotland, for example, was to see some of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s work.

I use the fact that I travel frequently for work to view exhibitions I wouldn’t otherwise have the chance to see. As a result, I’ve developed an appreciation for arts venues in such places as San Francisco, Cincinnati, San Diego, Toledo, and even Lincoln, NE, where the locals like to claim that the Sheldon has the best collection of art between Chicago and Denver.

(As far as I know, St. Louis is still located somewhere between the Windy and Mile High cities. But far be it from me to pour cold water on the claims of boosters who take pride in their local art museum, especially when it happens to be a good one.)

But in thinking through all the art that I’ve seen while away from home, one experience comes to mind as being different than the rest.

Over the Fourth of July weekend in 2002 I made the pilgrimage (and I don’t use that word lightly) to the New Mexico desert to see Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field. I say “pilgrimage” because The Lightning Field isn’t just a piece you stop by to see on a lark.

The work’s official website specifies the processes to be followed for reserving a place and traveling to the site. But here’s how it really works.

You make a reservation months in advance. On the scheduled day, you show up at an empty building on the one street of a town so small that it’s not even shown on all maps. By the way, this town happens to be a three-hour drive from the nearest commercial airport. Eventually someone pulls up next to your parked car and asks you if you’re there to go to The Lightning Field.

You throw your gear in the back of this person’s truck, and you get driven over one-lane dirt roads for 45 minutes. Eventually 20 foot high stainless steel poles appear outside the right-hand windows. You ride parallel to the poles for almost a mile before you arrive at a shack. This is where you get dropped off. The driver shows you where your dinner can be found, tells you that someone will pick you the next day, and leaves.

You’re stuck.

You want to go home? Don’t bother trying. It will take you more than a day to walk back to your car. And you won’t run into anyone to give you a lift between here and there.

If this all sounds a little cloak and dagger that’s because it is. I don’t think the woman who drove me out and brought me back the next day even told me her name.

Looking at the work cynically, it could be seen as the product of a marketing genius. “So here’s what we’re going to do. We’ll build a site-specific work in a location so remote that people can’t find it without a guide. We’ll force people to apply to see it. We’ll make it difficult for them to get a reservation by limiting the number of viewers to six per day. Then, when we do decide to let people in, we’ll make them feel really grateful that we’ve finally given permission. No, wait, that’s still too easy. It’s not painful enough yet. Oh, I’ve got it! Get this. As a condition of seeing the work, we’ll make people agree to spend a minimum of 19 hours with it.”

Except for the 19 hours bit, more than one restaurant in New York has used the same strategy for making itself the hottest place in town for a few months. Like with a really hot restaurant, because it’s so difficult to get in to see The Lighting Field, no one who gets the chance to see it will ever say a bad thing about it.

And if you do make the trip to see The Lightning Field, you become a minor celebrity in certain circles. Chances are that none of your art-loving friends has actually made the pilgrimage. If you’re art-chatting over cocktails and the topic of earthworks comes up (or any topic that’s remotely close, for that matter) you’re holding the conversational trump card. “Well, when I spent a day recently wandering through The Lightning Field. . . .”

But is the work any good? No one who has made the investment of several hundred dollars and .01% of his life (yes, I just did the calculation, and paying a visit to The Lightning Field can actually be measured as a percentage of your lifespan) will ever admit that the experience was less than sublime. It’s OK to admit that you spent $10 and 90 minutes watching the most recent Will Ferrell movie and that you hated it. No one will think less of you if you admit that. But if you tell someone that you went to The Lightning Field and it really sucked, you look like a dupe.

So what’s it like to visit The Lightning Field? What do you do for 19 hours while you’re waiting to get picked up? Sublime experience, or high brow version of Anchorman? Come back later this week when I post the second part of this piece.

Update: Part 2 has been posted here.



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