Thursday, June 01, 2006

The Lightning Field, Quemado, NM

Friday May 26, 2006

The long drive out to Quemado is overpoweringly beautiful. I’ve covered hundreds of miles and the infinite space is so still your complete presence is required. Javier calls on the phone to let me know he will be arriving in Albuquerque airport tomorrow at 3pm. I don’t want to linger on the phone, the drive is so luxuriously rich with peace and silence, and I want to return to my thoughts. The rocks, the colors, the verdant hills, the boulders on the hillsides, the soft grayish sage green of desert vegetation, it’s all so subtle and profound. The desert is so extreme, life and death. The shrubs hold onto every drop of moisture, taking nothing for granted. I’ve always loved the desert for clarity. There is no clutter, the answers are yes or no, hot as day or cold as night. Protection from the harsh elements, scorpions, and tarantulas, poison is only a defense. I am thinking of what to build back in Joshua Tree, learning to weld, working in metals, a shade shelter, gold screens, palm fronds, filtered light, elements of the earth, wood, stone, salt, metal, rough and smooth textures…

Highway driving is one thing but coming down the 117 to Pie Town and Quemado is something else. The powerful emotions fluctuate between brimming with emotion at the raw beauty to wondering what would happen to me if I happened to swerve off the road since there is no cell phone reception and not another car for miles. I am going deliberately into the depths of isolation, into the feared middle of the country, for, of all things, an art pilgrimage.

Years ago when I first decided that I had to experience this work, in my mind, the trip had already begun. Once that conscious thought has crystallized, and there is already a space in your mind for making an art pilgrimage, then in effect it has already happened, the you that existed before has already shifted and you have already changed. Making the reservation with Kathleen at the Dia Foundation months ago was the beginning of the manifesting of the trip, as well as driving out to Taos to see Larry Bell. The experience has already begun.

I pull into Quemado and see a real live cowboy in front of the only white building, leaning on a black truck, this must be the place. I get in and we drive another 20 miles off the road.

It’s pleasant chatting with Robert and learning that he has been with the Lightning Field since its inception, 29 years ago, he lives 2 miles from it and has seen it through every kind of season. I remark charmingly that he must be the foremost expert on the work, and he replies humbly that he is not an expert in anything. It is a rare opportunity to spend time there alone, it is even now booked almost through ‘til August. This opportunity is a gift.

Robert Weathers has now dropped me off at the cabin of the Lightning Field and while the isolation is profound and beautiful, I’m also happy to know that he can be reached at the following numbers. 82-772-2520 or 2691. The only other time I have felt this level of aloneness was in Bocas del Toro, Panama when a fisherman took me out to one of the thousands of tiny islands, and left me there. Unsure of whether my Spanish had effectively communicated to him that I also wanted to be picked up again later in the day, the resultant hours of solitude were splendid and tortuous.

The cabin is exquisitely simple. The rough-hewn wood lacking in adornment provides the perfect setting for one’s own experience. The setting is blank for the insertion of one’s own thoughts. The back door is variously painted in evenly striped layers of thicker or thinner white paint, leaving more or less wood revealed, resulting in subtle tonal differences in a monochromatic elemental regular pattern. Its simple poetry stands out against the Spartan monotone wood cabin.

I’ve been driving for over 5 hours from Santa Fe, and the first thing I do is head directly to the refrigerator. I pour myself a glass of orange juice and heat up some green chile enchiladas with sour cream and beans for an early supper on the back porch sitting on the rocking chair facing out to the Lightning Field and beyond. This is another world from Andrea and Javier’s in Santa Fe, that gorgeous and luxuriously appointed mud palace in Cerros Colorados, near the governor’s mansion, where I enjoyed morning coffee poured out of a sterling silver carafe. I can hear Andrea now, “They don’t just drop you off there with some pasta do they?” I retorted in undisguised defense, “You’re going there to see Art, it’s not a hotel!” And indeed, in the inlaid cupboard within the countertop, is trail mix, pasta, and Prego. I opt for the vegetarian enchiladas and they are delicious.

Birds float in the strong gusts of high winds, a scattering of brilliant white clouds hover in the expanse of blue horizon, bunnies hop along tumbleweeds and silver steel poles that look like needles poke out of the ground in a strangely man-made grid. I’m wearing open-toe leather sandals from a trip to Costa Rica and decide to head out into the field in them. The terrain is flat and if I do come across a rattler, it’ll be sure to let me know when we are close enough. I prepare to take a sweater and walk out, as the winds have now kicked up, I realize that there is no distinct moment where they begin or end, sitting on the rocking chair, I’m already a part of the work, walking into it will also be a part of the work. I think to myself I will look for the invisible line where the grid of the poles begins and attempt to ascertain whether there is a point of entry, or as I’ve thought while driving through California, Arizona, and New Mexico, that the whole trip is in fact part of the Lightning Field.

"The invisible is real."

"Isolation is the essence of Land Art."

After walking into the field and amongst the poles I realize the immense luxury of experiencing this work as it was meant, with the land, without other humans, perhaps with occasional high desert wildlife. I’m compelled to photograph over and over, although they are beginning to become repetitive. Stepping carefully on the ground in my open-toed sandals inflicts the occasional burr or splinter, but this is well worth it for the ease and breeze of getting as close as possible to au naturel freedom.

Just as I am sitting contemplating all the machinery that was used to forge/weld/install this work so that we can enjoy man’s subtle insertion into nature, two desert bunnies come tearing down full speed ahead through uncharted paths directly towards me. I lift up my feet, they appear as though they are going to run right into me and they dart under the house. I have no idea what that was about.

I am constantly brought back to considerations of nature and culture and coexistence of the two. I think back to the amount of culture that is required to be able to go deeper into nature comfortably, 4-wheel drive, underground water wells, and electricity generators. As I photograph these steel cultural signifiers amidst dirt and sparse vegetation I am compelled to insert myself into the photographic documentation of the experience. I consider my shadow as I walk the field, my reflection in the glass of the cabin’s windows. The cabin is so still and again I am overwhelmed at how lucky I am to have this experience alone. I thought I heard someone whistle, of course it is only a bird. I can see hundreds of miles in every direction and there is no sign of other human life.

Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, Great Salt Lake, UT, 2005
Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels, UT, 2005
Christo and Jean-Claude’s The Gates, Central Park, NYC, 2005
Walter De Maria’s The Lightning Field, Quemado, NM, 2006
Donald Judd’s Chinati Foundation, Marfa, TX, 2006
Larry Bell’s Studio, Taos, NM, 2006

Thinking back I’m aware of my growing fondness for traveling to see art. Pilgrimage as part of the viewing process. I flew into New York for less than 24 hours to see the Gates and get back to my teaching job. I’m thinking again of the possibility of organizing groups to view art. Small highly specialized groups. And yet, selfishly and happily, before taking anyone else, before sharing the experience with another soul, I have it all to myself first.

Life Follows Art

The drive and the journey have been an essential part of the appreciation of this work so much so that I see the art as the breadcrumbs that lure us out of the city into the country. These art destinations were but points of interest, dots to connect, just an excuse to take a long drive out into the vast desert expanse. As city folk and high art aficionados and connoisseurs “going out” tends to mean to an opening. This reversal translates “going out” as in “out of doors”, “the great unknown”, “out there”. And of course, with going out, we are confronted with the possibility of being shut out, outsiders, not in. But, as the great exodus from the city center happens when the city reaches a maximum capacity or density, those who can escape, do. Land and earth artists were beginning to speak to this same notion decades ago. The rich leave the city they built and the poor populate the remains of the inner city. Eastern philosophy advises meditation, solitude and inner peace, so do these works require contemplation and being present with one’s own senses and surroundings. Going out to go within is the paradox that situates the delicate balance between nature and culture, being and doing, acting and accepting.

My night in The Lightning Field

Amidst The Lightning Field and fresh thoughts of Larry’s works and his influence, I take a moment to think about my own. I feel on the verge of discovering what’s always been there.

I’m trying to unclutter all the stuff to get to that single grain of truth, every great person’s life work can be said in one clear statement. What is my artist statement? I’m about riding the line between nature and culture, light and dark, reflection and refraction, transparency and invisibility, movement and time, Zen and physics, yin and yang, masculine and feminine, animal behavior and human psychology.

Why am I going to Joshua Tree? To work with natural light and permanent architectural installations. So, my mind is made up, that is the project that I will begin upon my return. I don’t need to fuss with unfinished projects, I can let them fester in downtime. I need to create something spectacular.

The installations and sculptures are delicate and ephemeral instruments of shadow-creation. They act in the space between light and shadow, in the origami cranes, and the fighting fish pieces. That is the shadow world, where mankind lives, between light and dark. The transitional and unpredictable state when a door is ajar and is halfway open and halfway closed, and passage or retreat is equally possible, speaks to me of infinite possibility. The immaterial, infinite, and impermanent are states of being that imply a larger meaning that I am seeking. Cranes in steel, precious metals, metallurgy, geomancy, it's elementary.

This moment as I write, Nature has come too far into my Culture, the mice in the cabin are biting my toes as I type at the table. I have to keep my feet up otherwise they chew on me, I jump and scream, and it’s a horrible collision of nature and culture.

Sunrise at The Lightning Field

I awoke at a quarter to 6am, before my alarm, which is highly unusual for me. The Lightning Field is stunning in this light, which is surprisingly already bright. While the light is already strong the temperature is still quite cold. The glint of sun on the needle sharp tips of the poles is bright as a tiny flame. The row closest to me glows softly until gradually, all the way down the line, they begin to disappear in the light. They are as if an army of barely invisible lines of white light standing at attention for a brief moment before they disappear into the brightness of the noonday sun. They become an index of time and distance from the moment and global position of visual contact.

The Lightning Field is behind the cabin so that while looking out from the back porch towards the poles, the sun rises from the east, the left, and sets on the right, the west. It is only 6:30 am and they are beginning to disappear. They begin to emanate their own electric power that extends far beyond their physical field. They are quite thinly spread out, more so than I expected to see. Rather than creating a condensed area of steel rods, they become antennae-like along a larger distance, each pole thus becoming a singular moment of experience, with large empty space in between. It’s all about the empty space in between.


I had to come all the way out to Quemado NM to be alone with my art intention. I know what my work is about, It’s about polarities and being in the center of them. Perhaps it’s from being Eastern and growing up Western. Perhaps it’s from being ballsy and also being feminine, knowing when to be strong, and when to be soft. The 24-hour experience of the Lightning Field was absolutely necessary to understand them and their cycle. Really probably a 365-day experience is probably necessary but that is another story. To see them glimmer and then disappear in the span of 1 ½ hours is profound. It is in the subtle loss of the poles that the poetry comes forth. As in Lord Byron’s poem She Walks in Beauty, an old favorite that I still know.

She walks in beauty like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes
Thus mellowed to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies

It’s only 7:30am and the poles have lost the glint of their needle sharp pointed tip to the dull gray that is the reflection of broad daylight. The sun is starting to warm the air and the winds have begun as if in concert. The harsh rugged climate creates a further mystique to the work that also must be experienced.

What am I interested in doing myself? Stainless steel seems the material of choice so far, but I don’t know how connected I feel to it. Chinese zodiac materials are metal, wood, water, earth, fire, and wind. Western zodiac elements are air, earth, water, and fire. What about bulletproof glass? Steel powder, is that the pigment I have in that can? Can anything really be done in painting anymore?

400 highly polished stainless steel poles with solid pointed tips
An average height of 20 ft.
One mile by one kilometer and six meters or 5280 ft. x 3300 ft.
Rectangular grid array 16 x by 25 spaced 220 ft apart
A walk around the perimeter takes 2 hours.
Installation of the poles was carried out from June through October 1977.

The sum of the facts does not constitute the work or determine its esthetics.

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