Friday, October 7, 2011

Notes on the Lightning Field

Walter de Maria, "The Lightning Field", 1977.

Walter de Maria's Lightning Field is far away from everything. From Albuquerque, you drive three hours through deserts and range land and scorched lava fields to Quemado, New Mexico, one of the more remote, desolate towns in one of the most sparsely populated states in the country. (Quemado, by the way, means burned.) From there, you drive for 45 minutes on wasted dirt roads that twist and bend incomprehensibly and seem, after a while, to be passing through a dimensional fold. When you arrive, the only remnants of the human world are the small cabin where you eat and sleep and the 400 polished stainless steel poles, arranged in a one mile by one kilometer array, that make up the field itself.


Whether we like it or not, we are Westerners. We have inherited a culture that has learned to divide and manage space, learned to make it productive. For those of us used to inhabiting space that has been parceled, named and economized, the desert's vast emptiness is a shock. We literally do not know how to see such open, uncultivated space. It is not for nothing that the grid system was invented here in the western U.S., as a way of dividing, selling and managing--of rationalizing--the vast expanse. We are unused to land that has not been primed for consumption.

And so the Lightning Field, composed of identical rectangles, transposes that familiar grid system onto wild, wide open space. In doing so, it makes the space intelligible to us. It creates geometry and dimension; it creates boundaries and units, allowing us to perceive the space as habitable.

But the Lightning Field also reveals the limits of this process. Despite the geometries and boundaries, there is a surplus of space in the field. Space overflows; it rushes above and through and around, always exceeding the boundaries imposed upon it. The Field seems to say: despite our best efforts to manage and contain, to impose rational, economic sense upon the world, there will always be unclaimed ground. There will always be a wildness, an openness in the interstices.


There are (at least) two processes at work in our perception of the Lightning Field's geometry. First, imagine yourself standing on any of the vertices of a grid. You will see unbroken lines of points stretching longitudinally, latitudinally and diagonally. In between those lines, though, the points will seem to array themselves incoherently. So it is at the Lightning Field.

The second process: as we all know, objects closer to us appear to be larger than objects further away. And so, the poles forming those longitudinal, latitudinal and diagonal lines seem to slope smoothly downward as they extend out to the horizon. But, again, those interstitial poles cause us problems. They form strange matrices of alignment and height that resist immediate intelligibility and yet seem to resonate within us like some disorienting, coded harmony.


The day and night in September when we visited the field were perfectly clear. There was, in other words, no lightning. But we soon discovered that although lightning would probably be spectacular, light itself is the real medium and the real subject of the Lightning Fields. The poles do not produce their own light, they reflect, concentrate, channel the dynamic light of the environment. When the sun is high and bright, the poles share its almost translucent whiteness. When it is low, they radiate those warm, familiar peaches and pinks. A sunset may be the most commodified image in western culture, but the Lightning Field re-engages us with the sublime ache of the sun going down. It brings our awareness to the way in which the sun casts itself unevenly on the earth, imprinting light on objects, creating shadows, evoking color from the world.

Walter de Maria, "The Lightning Field", 1977.


At midday, the poles, bleached by the intense high light, almost disappear into the landscape. At night, they are absorbed into the desert's comprehensive darkness. At both times they are essentially invisible. But, as the sun rises and sets, at the margins of light and dark, they begin to glow, suddenly robust and sharply defined against the backdrop of the land. You can probably imagine how beautiful and poignant this is.

But also:
dawn and dusk dramatize the constant, taken-for-granted process of phenomena moving into and out of visibility. As you stand in the field waiting for the sun to rise, sensing the light around you becoming fuller, the poles, once dark, barely visible shapes on the horizon, slowly absorb that pinkish dawn glow and emerge into perceptibility. By mirroring and magnifying this process, this revealing undergone by the rocks, the dirt, the mountains and all of the objects in the environment (including we ourselves!) the Lightning Field brings it newly and forcefully to our attention, a revelation of what is always already happening.

And this process really is a miracle; every day, things that were once invisible to us become visible. What was dark, becomes light. The poles remind us both of the wonder of our own perception but also of the incredible surplus of world beyond our perception. The essential fact of the unseen is that it has the potential to become seen. There is an overflowing of meaning in the world. It's important to remember that.


Because I had never been anywhere as empty and remote as the Lightning Field, I had never before experienced such an overwhelming lack of human sound. These are some of the things you hear there: the wind rustling the brush and rushing in your ears; birds chirping, birds flapping their wings; the creak and crunch of your footsteps; your own sharply defined, yet strangely contoured voice. If you stand close enough, you can hear the flowers.

Most intense: the sound of your own body in your ears. The heavy thrum of your blood. A deep, round, whispery drone, crested with tremulous overtones fading in and out of audibility. (Are these ringings an ever-present layer of sound obscured by the hum of urban life? Or is it our body's attempt to compensate for the lack of that hum?) This is your body's song. There is no silence.