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Sunday, July 25, 2004

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

(See Part 1 of this piece here.)

Pilgrims undertake their journeys for different reasons. For some, religion dictates the behavior. Others make sacrifices to complete the journey as a sign of personal fidelity and devotion. Some look to experience a personal change though undergoing the journey. Still others travel to be able to claim that they have, to check that item of their list of life accomplishments.

All these reasons, to one extent or another, drove my decision to travel to The Lightning Field. Any religious pilgrim hopes to come away from the pilgrimage with new insight or having experienced personal change of some type. I can’t say I was any different. I was hoping for something by going to the high New Mexico desert to spend a day with De Maria’s best known—but least seen—work.

As the title indicates, the work is supposed to engage the atmosphere, drawing down lightning from the sky, creating an interchange between nature and culture. But it doesn’t really work this way. If you go expecting to see lightning strike the field, you may be disappointed. When a bolt of lightning does strike, it chars the pole that it hits, forcing the pole to be replaced. This only happens once every few years.

There was no lightning when I visited, but I did not go away from the experience disappointed.

The set of rules governing how the work is viewed (rules that I referred to somewhat facetiously in my first post) do structure the visit and create a richer experience for those who follow them.

It would not be enough to drive up to a parking lot on the edge of the work, snap a few pictures, get back in the car, and leave. The work unfolds in time and space. By forcing viewers to spend a day with the work and by giving them the freedom to wander around and through it, De Maria has made sure that people who see the work will feel it as well.

Actually spending time with The Lightning Field provides an experience that cannot be captured through photographs or descriptions. As the quality of light changes over the day, the work’s character changes. While the sun is high in the sky from mid-day into late afternoon, the poles almost disappear. They don’t throw a shadow, and the harshness of the light washes out poles more than three or four away from where you stand.

But as the sun drops in the sky when evening approaches, the field becomes different. A shadow grows from the base of each pole, giving it additional definition. The more veiled, angled light of evening begins to reflect off the poles, bringing into view the whole mile-long by kilometer-wide field. Watching this happen, it’s as if your vision suddenly sharpens. The field emerges from the landscape in its totality. If you happen to be there on a night that is not overcast and you get a brilliant orange sunset, the effect is stunning. The poles reflect that light, flashing orange, setting the field ablaze with color.

Part of the benefit of visiting The Lightning Field is getting a sense for the size of the work. In its conception, the work is a marvel of precision. Dia, which administers the piece, describes it this way.
The Lightning Field is comprised of 400 polished stainless steel poles installed in a grid array measuring one mile by one kilometer. The poles, two inches in diameter and averaging 20 feet by 7 1/2 inches in height, are spaced 220 feet apart and have solid pointed tips that define a horizontal plane.
Until you actually walk the 3.2 mile perimeter of the work and spend even more time wandering through its middle, you have no sense of the immensity of this construction.

Because the terrain is rough (it’s relatively flat, though, with changes in elevation over the whole piece limited to a few feet), you can’t walk fast. It takes well over an hour of walking under a harsh desert sun to circle the work. This is artwork on a completely different scale than anything you have experienced before. You come away with an appreciation for the grandiosity of De Maria’s vision and with a new touchstone for evaluating artistic scale that will inform your viewing forever. This is sculpture on the scale of nature.

Most pilgrims begin their journeys with the expectation of experiencing transformation. Seeing The Lightning Field did provide a transformation for me. It’s given me a new perspective that informs how I look at art. My sense of evaluating size and scale changed after spending a day with De Maria’s work.

The experience has also made me willing to travel to see other significant earthworks. I’ve just made reservations for another pilgrimage this August. Stay tuned for a report.



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