Sky Writing

At the Lightning Field BY Laura Raicovich. Coffee House Press. Paperback, 104 pages. $12.

The cover of At the Lightning Field

Lightning is a natural phenomenon that claims: a science (fulminology), an official fear (astraphobia), persistent metaphors (enlightenment, eureka), one of the best examples of concision in English literature (“picnic, lightning,” Nabokov’s explanation of a death in Lolita), and a false maxim (“Lightning never strikes the same place twice”).

It has also inspired an epic artwork, Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field, 1977, located in a remote New Mexico valley. Laura Raicovich’s new book is, as she writes, “dedicated to the recall of highly specific, vivid experiences” of De Maria’s project. It is also about the breakdown of that specificity: “As the years have passed since the visits to the field recorded here, my memories slur.” Into that slim gap between focus and abstraction, Raicovich slips a series of meditations on perception, causality, time, weather, and mathematics that have the syntax of a prose poem, the chronology and notation of a journal, and the cohesiveness of an essay.

The Lightning Field is a work that encourages—even seems to generate—personal exegesis, as it melds the rational (precisely spaced and calibrated standing metal poles in the desert) and the irrational (lightning, which is caused by an unbalanced charge in the atmosphere). De Maria introduced his Land art project in a lavish spread in the April 1980 issue of Artforum, with photographs by John Cliett—who used a trigger camera designed by a NASA scientist—that evoked the sublime. Among the artist’s printed “facts, notes, data, information, statistics and statements”: “The Lightning Field is a permanent work. The land is not the setting for the work but a part of the work.” Its site was chosen for its “flatness, high lightning activity and isolation. . . . The Lightning Field measures one mile by one kilometer and six meters. . . . There are 400 highly polished stainless steel poles with solid, pointed tips. The poles are arranged in a rectangular grid array (16 to the width, 25 to the length) and are spaced 220 feet apart.”

As Raicovich explains, the way you encounter the work is highly controlled by De Maria’s vision and now by the stewardship of the Dia Art Foundation. Unlike a painting, sculpture, installation, or even most films (Warhol’s excepted), The Lightning Field requires a day of your life. To see it, you must stay for twenty-four hours in the adjacent homesteader’s cabin, which sleeps six. Once you’ve been driven out to the site by a Dia caretaker, you cannot see anything but cabin, artwork, ranch valley, mountains, and sky—a romantic expansiveness of the American West that, for a city dweller, feels particularly strange.

Walter De Maria, The Lightning Field, 1977. John Cliett, © Dia Art Foundation.
Walter De Maria, The Lightning Field, 1977. John Cliett, © Dia Art Foundation.

Part of The Lightning Field’s sublimity is its largeness and privateness; you inhabit it alone or with a maximum of five others. You walk among its poles, lean your back against them, feel their vibration and the sun’s heat stored in them. It takes a while to pace the perimeter (two hours by De Maria’s calculation). You might encounter elaborate ant colonies, jackrabbits, birds, and snakes, along with scrub grasses, sedum, and wild hyssop rooted in the dust. No matter what time of year you visit, the temperature fluctuates wildly between morning and night. The field never looks the same, because the light changes how you see (or cannot see) the poles.

Most people don’t get lightning on their visit. (“The light is as important as the lightning,” De Maria wrote.) And most will never visit at all but know the work from Cliett’s dramatic photos—a 2001 feature in Cabinet magazine asked eight artists to “Please Draw That Famous Photograph of The Lightning Field from Memory.”

For all its visibility and recountability, the work remains elusive. De Maria cautioned that any photograph of it was incomplete (and photography at the site is prohibited). You have to see it in person. But once there, you can’t see it all at once—thus the rise of the fragmented, observational essay. Raicovich’s might be the most personal rumination on the slippage between enlightenment and enshrouding at the site, but it is far from a singular account; I was surprised I didn’t find listed in her bibliography Kenneth Baker’s 2008 The Lightning Field, a similar undertaking that chronicles the critic’s multiple visits to the artwork over three decades, interweaving theories of time, perception, and politics. “Critics and historians of The Lightning Field load it with explication, writing repeatedly of their private experiences,” Jane McFadden writes in Walter De Maria: Meaningless Work (Reaktion Books, 2016). “Yet The Lightning Field remains invisible, despite its ubiquity across the pages of art criticism at regular intervals. It is an art of flicker and shadows, the play of light in time, breath, against the space of media in our contemporary lives. It is the marker of elsewhere, not New Mexico, but of the invisible of art—that crucial intangible field where we might take measure in our insistently concrete world.”

At the Lightning Field doesn’t dispute this. In fact, the book embraces the edges of memory and perception that are less clear, progressing as a kind of record of all that Raicovich can’t see and doesn’t know—as if attempting to illustrate De Maria’s abstract statement that “the invisible is real.” It is also a kind of Groundhog Day narrative. Again and again, Raicovich returns to the site, making the long journey to Quemado, New Mexico, where Dia has an outpost and where you are picked up to be driven to the work. This repetition serves as a mnemonic tool: “The artwork proposes a phenomenological responsibility: / digest the experience, / become physically, visually engaged. / Remember.” Or, as Baker puts it in his text, “The mind of anyone who spends enough time alone at The Lightning Field may drift to . . . wondering how we ever make a world of what we experience.”

There are lovely stretches in which Raicovich recounts a visit during a drought year: “Standing in The Lightning Field, my eyes teared and nose ran, despite the intense heat and dry wind. My body was the wettest thing for miles.” Or when she describes a talk by the artist Terry Winters on helping to build The Lightning Field:

The crew hired kids from Pie Town . . . for
 $2.65 an hour . . . they fought over who got the heads and rattles of the rattlesnakes they
 killed. A retired rodeo horse named Payday
 lived on the land and members of the crew
 occasionally rode him. . . . When The Lightning
 Field was finished, the work crew went to
 Las Vegas to celebrate, and took in Dionne
 Warwick’s show at the Sands.

A passage on a sudden summer storm has the tenor of something by Annie Dillard:

Inside the cabin other distractions materialized

floorboards, slightly warped, a hair’s width 
separating one from the next.

Normally they admitted fine desert dust, but 
today, fleeing from the storm,

flying ants emerged.

Hundreds surfaced from between the boards, 
swarming inside the cabin. . . .

We flung the door open and were caught at a 
border between tiny flying beasts and jagged

the violence of nature.

The storm goes on for several pages, incorporating citations from Boris Pasternak, Severo Sarduy, Gertrude Stein, and Anne Carson. And then, abruptly: “The weather had passed. It had only taken thirty minutes.” Interestingly, these specific observations are only obliquely about the field—and are made by way of one’s durational presence within the physical site. Raicovich’s account thus gets at what is perhaps the largest gap between vivid focus and distorted abstraction at The Lightning Field—the fact that the artwork ends up encompassing the time and space around it as a phenomenological part of it, and these components are bounded by our own perceptual scope. To visit the field, then, is not so much to see it, or the lightning it invites, as to experience a temporal warp: an ever-fluctuating ecosystem of atmospheric conditions, animals, and vegetation within an American landscape that feels unchanged, as if from another era. Repeated visits only underscore this disjunction between flux and stasis, the “slur” of memory Raicovich cites.

It’s no surprise, then, that she turns to physics and fractal geometry. Her cursory digressions on these subjects are less engaging than her physically rooted observations, though she smartly culls thinkers from the same time period in which De Maria was imagining and making his work. The many authors referenced indicate the potent—and potentially infinite—power supply generated by The Lightning Field. And the narrative provoked by the austere grid of metal in the desert, and reflected in Raicovich’s book, is an infinite mirror of time and recollection.

I remember my own pilgrimage with friends several years ago—landing in Albuquerque in mid-October as hot-air balloons lifted off in dawn light. The drive through the badlands to Quemado, a one-street town seemingly out of a western, prepares you for the extreme terrain. There is no other soul or signal for miles; a paper map is advised. I remember, walking the field, how weird a measurement distance suddenly seemed—and therefore time too—as if the horizon were constantly being pushed back. I remember feeding pellets to the cabin’s little stove and finding a delicious enchilada-casserole dinner waiting in the fridge. And I remember cotton-ball clouds moving quickly with the stars toward us at night. (As Raicovich notes, “The constellations were clear and precise, / appearing to descend toward the desert floor. / [I could have touched them.]”) We didn’t see any lightning, but the sky never paused.

We didn’t want to leave. “I would have stayed longer,” Raicovich writes, and the book concludes with a moment of expectation: of the imminent arrival of lightning, but also of Raicovich’s return once more to the field. “I thought I could understand big things better if I stayed,” she notes—the utopian gift and curse of experiencing great art. On the way back to Albuquerque, we stopped in Pie Town to get a famous slice of cherry at Pie-O-neer café, but it was closed. We vowed we’d taste it next time.

Prudence Peiffer is an art historian and a senior editor of Artforum.