Lightning Field | - August 13, 2008

I've been told it doesn't matter if lightning strikes or not. Artist Walter DeMaria's Lightning Field-a grid of 400 lightning rods arranged across an empty southwestern New Mexico plain-is sublime due to the simple idea behind its creation, which seems to be that words are less important than the ability to speak. The more I think of it, that's what the Lightning Field is: one artist's means of speaking to the ether, be it filled with sunlight, stars, or stormclouds. Again, how the sky talks back is only part of the experience. Yes, one hopes for lightning, but a gorgeous sunset must often suffice.

Commissioned by the Dia Foundation in 1977 and set upon the high desert near the town of Quemado, the Lightning Field grid measures a mile along its east/west axis, by a kilometer north/south. The rods are 220 feet apart and measure two inches in diameter. From a sheer technical perspective, one must marvel at the fact that the points of these rods are all of the exact same elevation; if an imaginary tabletop were placed upon the Lightning Field, each point of each rod would touch it.

Those wishing to visit the Lightning Field must make reservations early, beginning March 1 of the year in which one wishes to visit. Groups of 6 are accepted for each visit, and during peak lightning season (July and August), the price per visitor is $250.00. I should mention here that "visitor" is defined as one who wishes to live in a dwelling near the Lightning Field for twenty hours, for that is the only available option for viewing this work of art. You can't just drive up and see it, turn around, and go home. You and your cohorts will be shuttled from Quemado to the dwelling and left there with all the basic comforts you will need for your stay. The next day you will be picked up and brought back to Quemado.

Quemado (though the town predates the Lightning Field, I still find it funny that the name of the town means "burned") is approximately two and a half hours southwest of Albuquerque, reached by taking Interstate 40 west to 117 South. The Dia Foundation has an office in Quemado, where you will meet your shuttle. The shuttle ride to the Lightning Field dwelling takes about an hour across a dirt and sometimes muddy road. Once there, you are free to do as you like (except snap photographs or get back to Quemado by motorized transport). A dinner will have been left for you in the oven, and the rest of a day's meals are provided as well.

The most important thing to do is to walk throughout the grid. Revel in the sheer scale of this project, how precisely the poles are placed. Take in how the setting sun creates 400 pillars of glistening orange, and how at night the stars become the landscape. Listen to the silence, broken here and there by wind and coyote calls. Keep an open mind as you do all these things, and remember that you should never expect a light show like Moses might have seen if he broke all Ten Commandments at once. Yes, it's true: lightning at the Lightning Field is a rare occurrence, even if the sky fills with thunderheads. If you expect lightning, there is a very good chance you will leave disappointed.

Again, DeMaria's idea behind the Lightning Field, a piece that for its precision and scale is so unequivocally the work of humankind, seems to have been to create a means of speaking to nature: "Hello. Here we are. What do you have to say, Sun, Wind, Stars, Vast Empty Space? Lightning? Do you read me? Are you there?"