If you get the chance to sleepover at The Lightning Field — the hidden-away, 1970s-era, 24-hour art installation that attracts lightning to the middle of the New Mexico desert — you should take it. And five friends.
SOMEWHERE IN WESTERN NEW MEXICO – I lie on my back in the middle of the field, my scarf wrapped around my face like a keffiyeh, listening to the hollow wail of the wind. When I stand up, the sound pitch-shifts to a low hum. Sunlight sparks off the rows of tall, thin metal poles surrounding me. The wind wraps itself around them, howling its way into existence.
I am standing in the middle of the The Lightning Field, Walter De Maria's seminal land art installation in New Mexico's high desert, and it is blowing my mind. Completed in 1977, the work is made up of 400 polished stainless steel poles designed to attract lightning. The poles are, on average, 20 feet and 7 1/2 inches tall, laid out across a one mile by one kilometer grid. It’s massive. The piece is maintained by the New York-based Dia Art Foundation, and the only way to see it is to spend the night in the rustic cabin on the property.
De Maria intended for the piece to be experienced over a twenty-four hour period with no more than six people on the property at a time. I’d managed to score a reservation and invited five friends to join me. We drove for hours through the vast expanse of empty desert to the Dia office in Quemado, a town with no street names or addresses. We were directed to look for the two-story white building with large windows on the north side of the town’s main street. We found it without incident. There, we met Robert, the Lightning Field’s caretaker. He worked with De Maria on the piece’s installation and has been maintaining it ever since. We loaded into the Dia shuttle. Robert tuned the radio to outlaw country and drove us another forty-five minutes on winding dirt roads until we reached the site. He showed us around the cabin, told us someone would be back the next morning to pick us up, then left.
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We find ourselves alone in the middle of nowhere. The cabin is modest and efficient: three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a dining table for six. And De Maria’s notebook, which contains facts about and insights into the piece. “Isolation is the sense of land art,” he wrote. Which explains why we have no neighbors, cell service, or WiFi. Photographs are prohibited, Instagram is impossible. We are forced to be present in the now, to connect with our surroundings.
It is late afternoon when we walk out into the field. A row of purple mountains rises up far in the distance. The sky is clear and blue, the possibility of lightning nonexistent. I go off on my own, slowly, watching the poles disappear and reappear as my perspective changes. They remind me of the alchemical fifth element of aether, something otherworldly yet connected to earth, air, fire, and water. I am somewhere near the middle when the sun begins to drop.
The land is not the setting for the work but a part of the work.
As the light changes, the poles themselves transform from silver to gold to white, then the blackness creeps up until only the tips shine bright like circular bulbs. And then they are gone. After dark, we eat the meal that had been left for us — green chile enchiladas and beans, with flan for dessert. Without the distractions of modern technology, we have nothing to do but talk. The conversation drifts to the art work: “It’s like acupuncture for the earth.” “I forgot how magical a sunset could be.” “The poles make the sound of the wind change.” We don't see any lightning while we are there, but it doesn't matter. The piece functions beautifully without it.
We move outside to the porch. The poles are invisible in the dark night, but the stars put on a show of their own. We are there at the height of the Orionid meteor shower, and spend a few hours watching stars shoot across the sky before bed. I wake up just before sunrise and go back out into the field. The poles glow white in the cool blue sky. This in itself is beautiful, but as the sun grazed the horizon, I realize it is just the opener.
Sunrise and sunset are the headliners of this show. The poles turned pink and bright gold, then the glowing orbs appear again on their tips.
The more time I spend in the field, the more I understand De Maria’s need to have his work viewed in this way. The piece is a shapeshifter. It isn’t simply a sculpture, it is an immersive time-based piece of art. I stay out until it was too cold to feel my feet. Kim, Robert’s coworker, picks us up a little after 11. As she drives us back to civilization, I'm reminded of a line from De Maria’s notebook: “The invisible is real.”
PLAN YOUR TRIP
When to Go: The Lightning Field is open from May to October. The Dia starts taking reservations February 1, and they book up fast. Rates are $150 per person in May, June, September, and October, and $250 per person in July and August.
How to Get There: Fly into Albuquerque, rent a car, and drive about two and a half hours to the Dia office in Quemado. We spent the night in Santa Fe first, which is about an hour out of the way. There are a few places to stop on your way in or out. Grab a slice of pie at The Gatherin’ Place on Highway 60 in Pietown (the lemon chess was delicious). The Range Cafe in Bernalillo has some of the best nachos I've ever had and is just down the street from Silva’s Saloon, the oldest saloon in New Mexico. Go for a hike in El Malpais National Monument, or just stop and take a picture of La Ventana Natural Arch (Highway 117, Grants, NM). Drive down Highway 60 through Magdalena and you’ll pass a field filled with massive white telescopes pointing towards the sky. This is the Very Large Array Radio Telescope Facility, where the Jodie Foster film Contact was shot. It’s open to the public for self-guided tours daily from 8:30 a.m. to sunset.
Don't leave New Mexico until you walk on the bright side of the moonscape, then follow in the footsteps of Georgia O'Keeffe, and watch a video of the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.