In the late 1950s the writer and environmentalist Edward Abbey worked as a park ranger in Arches National Monument in the Utah desert. In his 1968 book Desert Solitaire, his descriptions of the plants, animals, light, sky and stone are shot through with the tension between the human visitors to the park and the arid, delicate ecosystems. ‘Where is the heart of the desert?’, he asked. ‘Completely passive, acted upon but never acting, the desert lies there like the bare skeleton of Being, spare, sparse, austere.’ A desert ‘says nothing,’ he wrote. Throughout his book, he refers to these places as ‘barren’ and yet he imbues them with a form of life that is elusive. Something akin to ‘spirit’, perhaps.
I consider the tree, the lonely cloud, the sandstone bedrock of this part of the world and pray–in my fashion–for a vision of truth. I listen for signals from the sun–but that distant music is too high and pure for the human ear. I gaze at the tree and receive no response. I scrape my bare feet against the sand and rock under the table and am comforted by their solidity and resistance. I look at the cloud.
There is a sense that Abbey saw the desert as a blank slate, as a space onto which he could project his own version of ultimate ‘desert-ness’. Abbey’s version of things was often complex: he railed against overpopulation, yet fathered five children; he wanted the human imprint to be minimal in the wilderness, yet enjoyed throwing beer cans from his car as he sped along quiet highways; and his views on immigration would now be considered questionable. Much as I admire the brilliance of his writing, the passion he expressed for wild places and the energy he devoted to environmental issues, my relationship to him remains complicated and guarded.
Just after the publication of Desert Solitaire, a group of American artists emerged in the West and Southwest whose vision of art was one that dissolved the walls of galleries and museums. The work they created in craters, lakes and in arid landscapes was intended to expand the idea of art and the expectations of its audience. Their pieces would be intertwined with the Earth, they would contrast with the land or they would merge with it; they would suffer natural entropy or they would withstand it; and they would encourage us to question our relationship to the planet and to the act of creation. Richard Long, Robert Smithson, Nancy Holt, Michael Heizer, Dennis Oppenheim and Walter de Maria all carved, sculpted, walked and dug pieces that attempted to remove the constraints of the institution. This migration outside simultaneously led these artists back in time.
There are thousands of examples of ancient geoglyphs – arrangements or rearrangements of objects across large expanses of land. Many can only be seen from a great height. The Nazca lines in the Peruvian desert, which date from 500 BCE, cover an area of nineteen square miles. These geometric shapes and animal outlines were made by scraping the top layer of red iron-rich Earth to reveal the pale yellow subsoil underneath. This drive to alter the Earth to express a desire – or perhaps a need – to connect the sacred to the performative, stories to place, the human with the non-human, the man-made with the natural has been with us forever. We have always communicated both with the Earth and through it.
2. The Lightning Field
In 2012, my partner, our daughter and some friends travelled to the remote high desert of New Mexico to see one such act of communication through landscape: Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field. De Maria made it a condition that only six people be allowed to view the work at one time and they must experience it for twenty-four hours. There is a small, roughly hewn homesteader cabin for visitors to sleep in. For De Maria, isolation was ‘the essence of land art.’
The artist had made a test version of The Lightning Field near Flagstaff, Arizona in 1974. A year or so later he secured funding for his larger and more permanent version from the Dia Art Foundation who purchased this swathe of New Mexican desert. He chose this site for its beauty and remoteness and for the fact that lightning strikes here roughly sixty days per year.
To create this work, De Maria drove 400 stainless steel poles measuring around twenty feet in length into the ground in a grid that stretches a mile from east to west and a kilometre from north to south. The east-west rows contain twenty-five poles, the north-south, sixteen. Despite the uneven ground, they have been placed so that their pointed tips are level and they form a continuous plane. There is an intense symmetry at work here which contrasts the undulating ground and the distant ribbon of red-ochre mountains. Everything about the setting is warm. The piece itself could not be colder or sharper.
Once you secure your place and pay for your night in the cabin you are sent ‘instructions’. You are told to meet a man called Robert in the Dia Art Foundation building in Quemado, New Mexico (population 250). You aren’t told much else. While sitting in a small Mexican restaurant on Quemado’s main street I noticed a tall rangy man in a Stetson leaning against a truck in the parking lot. I asked if he was Robert. He nodded. We paid for our lunch and piled into his vehicle for the forty-five-minute trip. You can’t drive to The Lightning Field on your own, the desert terrain is rough, there are no markers, and it’s not on any maps. You have to surrender yourself to it.
In the truck on the way there Robert nodded at the red ground and slash of blue sky, ‘When I look out there,’ he said, ‘I get weird thoughts.’ He wouldn’t elaborate. Robert had been one of the high school kids chosen by De Maria in 1977 to hammer the steel poles into the Earth. It was a great gig, he said. He got to live out in the desert and drink beer every night. When I asked him what he thought of the artwork, he replied, ‘It’s what you make of it. Everyone has their own Lightning Field.’
Robert dropped us off and drove away. I felt an immediate pull to touch the steel rods, to try and understand where I stood in relation to them, to get my bearings. When I walked in a circle around the outer perimeter of the cabin facing away from it, the only place my eye could land was on the line of the horizon. There are no trees, no telephone poles or mobile phone masts. There is nothing manmade in your field of vision apart from the The Lightning Field, which in this setting seems very small.
Over the course of the afternoon, I observed the movement of the sun in order to work out the time of day. I have rarely been in a landscape where I could see the sun dip below one spot on the horizon knowing it would rise from another spot within the same field of vision. If I had stood there all night I would have been able to witness this without moving my head. My response to the work was one of wonder – a simple awe slowly crept into me. I wandered between the poles stepping on the tiny bleached skeletons of desert rats, the shed skins of snakes and the odd animal tooth. Flowers blossomed, hares scrambled into their burrows and mounds made by fire ants rose and fell, every now and then exploding with flames of small, fast moving red dots. In the early evening we had a rain shower and then the rainbows arrived. We were shown every colour transmittable by light reflected back at us in the burnished steel rods.
As the sun set, we sat on the small wooden porch and watched in complete silence as the tapered steel tips of the poles raged with the ball of fire in the sky. I thought about the intervention into this landscape by the artist and how it made me more aware of the inscrutable power of the desert. But what was most noticeable to me, because of the scale of the site and the flatness of the land with its perfect 360-degree view, was the curvature of the Earth. I could see the gentle curve of our planet and I became acutely aware that we are all standing on a ball of rock spinning through the Universe. Witnessing this place is to witness one’s insignificance. Yet, there was something tugging at me, something about the whole thing that didn’t sit completely comfortably.
There is a violence to The Lightning Field, to these man-made lances piercing the surface of the Earth. They could be javelins or spears. There is a sense of humans dominating the land. And there is perhaps something perverse about framing lightning as a spectacle. In our heated world where wildfires now ravage so much of the West in ever-increasing conflagrations, witnessing lightning for entertainment seems a luxury, a foolhardy and entitled pursuit.
Visitors to The Lightning Field are forbidden from sharing photos on social media or publishing them on blogs, in newspapers or magazines. The Dia Foundation has a very tight grasp on what information is allowed out into the world. Perhaps there is an attempt on their part to protect the purity of the one’s experience and to avoid visual oversaturation. John Beardsley, the art historian and author of Earthworks and Beyond, finds the measure of control exercised by De Maria and Dia to be problematic. The restrictions around access to the site and the demand that images not be shared are for Beardsley a ‘wilful cultivation of mystery’. He goes on to discuss the ‘enormous disparity between the actual sculpture, which is a minimalist understatement, and the promotion it receives, which is anything but.’
To demand so much from the viewer does indeed heighten expectation. For the visitor not to see lightning, not to experience a revelation – spiritual, aesthetic or purely personal – could be interpreted as a fault in the work. Yet, this sense of anticipation was a large factor in my connection to the piece. The Lightning Field asks the viewer to reconsider one’s relationship not only to art but to its setting – in this case the desert – and to ask the question of where art belongs in the world both physically and psychologically. If a desert can be a museum, what else is it capable of? If art can be part of the desert, then where else can it exist?
I think it is only right that we should feel anticipation and maybe even anxiety when entering a desert landscape. Like meeting a stranger, we cannot know how our communication will go, how much understanding we will have with each other and how much future we might share. During my night at The Lightning Field, I could feel the landscape was telling me things, but I couldn’t hear the words. The conversation between the Earth and the work drowned out the conversation between myself and the piece. If you follow the thread of so much art, you will be led towards a grappling with our mortality, but rarely are we asked to face the mortality of our planet. This is where my understanding of The Lightning Field falls away and my words begin to fail. And this is also where the success of the piece lies for me: it is a reminder of our transience and our participation in it.
Where I live in London, I am in closer proximity to stainless steel girders than I am to the skeletons of tiny desert animals. I am domesticated and unwild despite wanting not to be. The Lightning Field, perhaps more than any piece of work I have confronted, explores this paradox: most of us live, sleep and breathe closer to metal than to sand or soil. It is this discord that unsettled me and continues to do so. The desert has become a rarified spectacle for most of us.
One can imagine the 36,000 pounds of stainless steel used to make The Lightning Field still standing long after most of us have gone. What will be made of it? What stories will be spun to make sense of these steel spires? By creating something permanent in a fragile landscape, De Maria reminds us of the impermanence of our existence – both natural entropy and man-made destruction – and our simultaneous desire to create something lasting. Perhaps there is posturing in De Maria’s methods – a kind of arrogant grandeur – but how many viewers would willingly wander into a desert without such an invitation?
My visit to The Lightning Field occurred simultaneously with my commitment to living closer to the Earth. I have no idea if my experience there fed into this desire, but I suspect it did. I suspect that the effect of land art on many of us who make these pilgrimages is somewhat mysterious. I suspect that I owe more to The Lightning Field than I care to admit. What De Maria has done is create a work that echoes perfectly Abbey’s description of the desert as the ‘skeleton of Being’, one that is ‘spare, sparse, austere’. But it is the work that is these things. The desert, by contrast, becomes an entity whose very ‘Being’ is shown to us as vibrating with life, abundant and plentiful.
While we gazed out at the blackness of the desert from our cabin, we saw very faint strips lightning dancing between the stars in the distance and we could hear the soft rumblings of thunder. But it didn’t approach. None of us slept much – it feels like such a waste of time to sleep in this environment. I wished with all my might that Robert would forget about us so we could stay indefinitely. I didn’t want to only feel space; I wanted to feel time. I sensed their merging in me here in the desert as I waited for lightning to strike.
Robert showed up at lunchtime as arranged and dropped us back in Quemado. After about half an hour of driving, we hit rumbling, low, grey fog which was illuminated with brilliant flashes of lightning. We couldn’t see out of the car so we pulled over and waited for the storm to pass. We sat in silence watching the rain and lightning. And then, once it was quiet, we looked at the clouds.