By Evie McKenna
In the middle of a field, in the middle of nowhere, in Catron County, New Mexico are 400 stainless steel poles placed in an exact grid over a piece of undulating land. The poles are set 220 feet apart from each other, at an elevation of 7,200 feet above sea level and range in height from 15 to 26.5 inches. It is these poles that make up Walter de Maria’s sculpture The Lightning Field (c.1977).
Combining the natural beauty of the American landscape with the man-made structures of the lightning poles The Lightning Field has been heralded as one of the greatest pieces of land art from the 20th Century. While the sculpture’s name teases the ever-present excitement of lightning, both as a visual experience and as a physical danger, the rods themselves rarely catch the bolts. When they do catch the lightning, which is a more regular occurrence in the summer months, the charge of the electrical force causes them to crack, meaning that they then have to be replaced. Intended to be experienced for a long period of time The Field was created so viewers could appreciate the ephemerality of nature: the art and the landscape interchangeable pieces within De Maria’s work. A change in movement changes the perception of the poles; they move in and out of a viewer’s line of sight, varying themselves in the landscape to their own rhythm in front of a viewer’s eyes. The poles perfectly align with one another along the horizon so that they catch the light during the sunsets and sunrises to create a bright line of light across the vanishing point.
The sculpture is designed to make you confront your own isolation: only six visitors are allowed in at one time while the size of the installation means that visitors can wander far enough away from each other so that it is only them alone within the landscape. Furthermore, due to its secluded location, which is kept a secret, there are very few visitors at any given time. To De Maria ‘isolation is the essence of land art’ – to be alone is to understand the land.
It is the mysticism created around the work that keeps the spirit of The Lightning Field alive. The artist and his sponsor, The Dia Foundation, were, and still are, very secretive about the sculpture and no photos are allowed to be taken when you visit the site. The Field has even been copyrighted by De Maria and his sponsor. There are very few images of the work available on the internet and, in some ways, this is positive as it means that viewers are forced to go and visit the work if they wish to fully experience. It is only there that all their senses can be fully engaged to the drama that is The Lightning Field. However, this does create a barrier to those who are not financially able to visit the sculpture and turns the work into a political statement about who should be able to access art. It is the secretiveness of the artist that keeps the ‘hype’ surrounding it alive with John Beardsley, a critic, going so far as to argue ‘restrictions, in this case, seems more an expression of the wilful cultivation of mystery.’
While The Lightning Field offers stunning views of nature to those that are able to visit it, the sculpture also raises worrying questions about how much control an artist should have over their work and who should be able to access it, for both the general public and critics.