Restoration of The Lightning Field

- June 18, 2012

“Of lightning rods and other artworks and earthworks…”

An article in The New York Times last week caught my attention. In it, the writer spoke of the “campaign” to restore Walter De Maria’s magical “The Lightning Field,” an environmental sculpture near Quemado, New Mexico, west of Socorro and way past Pie Town. How I love that name!  

On the way, you pass the Very Large Array, the radio astronomy observatory installation, consisting of 27 dish antennas, that has been looking to the heavens for more than 30 years (think: the film of Carl Sagan’s book “Contact” with Jodie Foster). For me, this is every bit as much an art installation as De Maria’s or the works of artists Andy Goldsworthy, Robert Smithson or James Turrell. Built by the rich science community, this “installation art” never needs to go begging for funding to restore the artwork, but some of the work of these other artists is always in need of “restoration” to maintain their original artistic visions. I guess this is the way of the world. So what about “The Lightning Field?”

According to the Dia Foundation, which commissioned the work from De Maria in1977, “The physical integrity of the structure is at risk.” As the owner and operator of the installation, Dia maintains the work. “The Lightning Field” is composed of 400 steel poles rising more than 20 feet high and spaced 220 feet apart, their pointed tips forming a horizontal plane. There has been some concern for the structural integrity of the work, as some of the poles have become loose and the whole piece needs to be stabilized.

Enter Larry Gagosian, the famed international gallery owner, and Miuccia Prada – yeah, that one (absent Meryl Streep). Our own Lannan Foundation has assisted with support and operating funds, but Messrs Gagosian and Prada will be involved in funding the restoration and “The Llightning Field” is planning to open again in June 2013. Perhaps this wonderful artwork will garner all of New Mexico’s lightning strikes and none will start our costly forest fires. That alone should make fundraising for this project easier.

I’ve never actually been to “The Lightning Field,” being petrified of this naturally-occurring event. I know that you are sequestered in a cabin on the periphery of the field with the hopes of experiencing our summer lightning in this artistic way, but I am not there yet. Perhaps one day I can overcome my fear and take this magical journey to Quemado, where you are picked up and delivered to the field. They don’t exactly blindfold you but they don’t want anyone to just wander out to “The Lightning Field” seeking an adventure. You stay in a small cabin with other visitors and have simple meals, hoping for the best. The images I have seen of the experience are, in fact, quite magical.

About those other artists
Many of the works of environmental/earthwork/ installation artists (call them what you like), need to be restored from time to time, like any art. Think of them like the frescos in Florence that had to be repaired after the devastating 1966 flood of the Arno River. Hell, even the appraisers on “Antiques Road Show” tell show attendees about the “condition issues” of their newly-evaluated treasurers and suggest they seek restoration to preserve the objects’ value. AND, THESE ARTWORKS ARE OUTDOORS.

Andy Goldsworthy 
Some of British sculptor Goldsworthy’s works are meant to last as long as Stonehenge, yet some are quite ephemeral. I particularly like the work that is both inside and outside of the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. The large stones of this piece seem to invade the interior space as they “pass through” the glass wall of the museum. For more on Goldsworthy, rent/download the 2001 film “Rivers and Tides”, which I saw at the Screen some years ago.

Robert Smithson
Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty”, is an earthwork sculpture constructed of mud, salt crystals, basalt rocks, earth and water on the northeastern shore of the Great Salt Lake near Rozel Point in Utah. It forms a 1,500-foot-long, 15-foot-wide counterclockwise coil jutting from the shore of the lake which is only visible when the level of the Great Salt Lake falls below an elevation of 4,197.8 feet.

At the time of its construction, the water level of the lake was unusually low because of a drought. Within a few years, the water level returned to normal and submerged the jetty for the next three decades. It is now visible again because of a drought (an artist benefit of global warming?). Now you see it, now you don’t. Like Brigadoon, it emerges and disappears, hopefully not in 100-year cycles, as in this musical.

James Turrell
James Turrell’s “Sky Space” from 1986 on the southwestern edge of the Center for Contemporary Art’s Old Pecos trail property is said to be the first he ever built. A New York Times article from August 2007 mentions it would soon be “re-opened to the public” – I’m still waiting. His works are at locations all over the world – from MoMA in New York to Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris and we keep ours hidden on CCA’s back lot. Go figure! At least I will see the work at the Pompidou in a couple of weeks.

I would just like to experience as many of these imaginative wonders as possible before I leave this world: horizontal, kicking and screaming. For now, I content myself with planning to be a part of Christo’s “Over the River” Colorado installation in 2014 and a visit this summer to Charles Ross’ “Star Axis” near Anton Chico in northeastern New Mexico.