At the Lightning Field
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At the Lightning Field

Laura Raicovich

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📖 eBook - ePub

At the Lightning Field

Laura Raicovich

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About This Book

Walter De Maria's "Lightning Field" is 400 stainless steel poles, positioned 220 feet apart, in the desert of central New Mexico. Over the course of several visits, it becomes, for Raicovich, a site for confounding and revealing perceptions of time, space, duration, and light; how changeable they are, while staying the same.

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Visit I: October 18 and 19, 2003
Visitors to The Lightning Field are required to stay overnight at a small cabin just north of the grid of poles.
“I would have stayed longer,” I thought.
Four friends joined me on my first visit (the cabin can accommodate six). We arrived via Albuquerque and drove several hours to a small town called Quemado. Quemado is remote, the drive aggressive in its austere beauty. We took the longer route through the El Malpais National Conservation Area. North of the road, rocks jut into the massive sky, and an expanse of desert stretches to the south, topped by ancient black lava flows, out of which grow gnarled piñon trees.
The town seemed improbably empty, dusty, and shuttered when we arrived, and we left the car parked in front of a strand of low adobe buildings. Robert Weathers, The Lightning Field’s caretaker since its completion, met us at the visitor’s office and drove us to the field.
Robert is not a man to mince words or to use them often. He is tall, slim, and weathered, and Robert’s age is difficult to discern. He is a cowboy. He wears a silver belt buckle on his jeans; a prize from his rodeo days. He grazes a herd of cattle on the land surrounding the field. Raised in nearby Pie Town, he often silently listens to Waylon Jennings as he speeds a Suburban on the dirt roads to and from The Lightning Field.
We arrived just after midday, the sun at its highest.
Clear sky.
The poles were ephemeral—
barely visible as the sun’s midday rays
skimmed down
the vertical shafts.
I thought, “There’s not much out there.”
The sky was the biggest thing, then the desert.
It was difficult to discern scale and distance.
The horizon could have been ten miles or one thousand
miles away.
After the density of the horizonless city,
where sky grazes buildings rather than
kissing the earth,
any distance seemed possible.
We abandoned our gear in the cabin and headed into the
field of poles.
Circumambulation seemed a logical starting point.
We headed west and began to understand what distance
Moments before, the poles were willowy, evanescent, almost
not there.
Their material, machine-made quality contrasted with the
unruliness of nature’s
variations in the landscape.
The low-slung brush was bleached out
sage green,
gray brown;
dull-yellow anthills contributed a variegated
topography (pay attention, don’t trip).
Above, quickly moving cumulus clouds.
These were variables, the poles constant.
Close up, the steel poles stretched toward the sky, most over three times my height, poking sharp tips into the blue above, knitting dusty earth to sky.
They form a grid.
Four hundred poles arranged orthogonally,
their alignment as precise as their cool, smooth surfaces.
Circumambulating The Lightning Field, I walked the perimeter, the edge between the landscape and steel.
As I walked, time distended and contracted as the poles went from rigid regularity to a seemingly haphazard arrangement and back again. Looking into The Lightning Field, the farthest poles were toothpicks at an incalculable distance. Poles aligned with their siblings along north–south and east–west axes, then a few steps on disappeared, subsequently expanding into a less regular arrangement, and again forming a pattern:
Tall (close)
Medium (distant)
Medium (more distant)
Short (farthest)
Medium (closer)
Medium (closer)
Tall (closest)
And repeating again, again.
I flattened my vision to see them on the same plane, like a bar graph representing an unknown trend. Steps farther on revealed a jumble, then back to the axial arrangement, ordered and comprehensible.
Entering the field of poles, I encountered the same phenomenon, surrounded. The grid flipped back and forth between regular alignments and seemingly
chaotic configurations.
Now the grid clear and simple,
then disorder,
next the pattern of the short and tall poles that defined the
expanse of the grid,
disorder again,
and the grid, and so on.
It was a potentially endless cycle, the possibility of infinity suggested by the arrangement of the poles, their relationship to one another, and their environment.
Inside the grid, I could not discern whether the smallest pole I saw in the distance was the edge of the field, or if I simply could not read its limit.
From one border,
the other edges of the field were unclear except at the
corners of the grid.
(What are the limits of my vision?)
Even then, only two boundaries could be observed with
The implication,
I thought about perfect geometries and the incremental,
expansion of the universe;
the messiness of the cosmos;
the slowing
of the earth.
Despite our will to regularize time, the earth isn’t a sphere;
the orbit around the sun is elliptical; other objects in the
galaxy have an impact on the earth’s rotations and orbit,
notably the moon with its own particularities of density,
orbit, and variable gravitational pull.
(Sometimes seconds must be added to the atomic clock to
approximate accuracy.)
The earth wobbles on its axis,
it is slowing down.
It is farther or closer to the sun
depending on the time of year.
At The Lightning Field, I thought I felt its motion.
My sense of time in the city meant nothing in this place. It was replaced by a feeling of forever that was closer to geologic time than my own notions of a day or week passing. I thought I could understand big things better if I stayed. I wanted to commit to being in this place—as I said, I would have stayed longer.
In 1968, art critic David Bourdon wrote (before The Lightning Field was built): “De Maria is after a deeper commitment on the part of the spectator, who is asked to become an agent or catalyst in the fulfillment of the work . . . the burden of response is placed not on the sculpture but on the spectator. The degree and quality of spectator engagement becomes crucial.”3
It is worth noting that while at school at the University of California at Berkeley in the late 1960s De Maria knew La Monte Young, and through this affiliation with Young became familiar with the work of John Cage. Cage’s work and its focus on randomness, distension of time, and Eastern philosophies informed De Maria’s practice and, in part, inspired a work entitled Cage (1961–65).
Variations in desert temperature were significant
from midday to night and back again;
a loud gulp of quiet;
an intense aur...

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Citation styles for At the Lightning FieldHow to cite At the Lightning Field for your reference list or bibliography: select your referencing style from the list below and hit 'copy' to generate a citation. If your style isn't in the list, you can start a free trial to access over 20 additional styles from the Perlego eReader.
APA 6 Citation
Raicovich, L. (2017). At the Lightning Field ([edition unavailable]). Coffee House Press. Retrieved from (Original work published 2017)
Chicago Citation
Raicovich, Laura. (2017) 2017. At the Lightning Field. [Edition unavailable]. Coffee House Press.
Harvard Citation
Raicovich, L. (2017) At the Lightning Field. [edition unavailable]. Coffee House Press. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Raicovich, Laura. At the Lightning Field. [edition unavailable]. Coffee House Press, 2017. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.