Many years ago I stayed overnight in a rustic cabin on a remote and otherwise uninhabited area of a high desert plateau in western New Mexico. No phone. No television. No radio. No computer. I was dropped off and the car drove away. Why, you might ask?
I was visiting The Lightning Field, a major work of land art by American conceptual artist Walter De Maria. The Lightning Field, installed in 1977, is a spectacular work, an internationally recognized masterpiece comprising 400 stainless steel poles, each 2 inches wide and approximately 20 feet tall from where they are embedded in the red earth. The structure is laid out in a precise, visually level grid, with the poles placed 220 feet apart, covering an area one mile long and one kilometer wide.
De Maria searched for years before identifying the site for his minimalist installation, and he also designed the visitor's experience - that of only a few people at a time staying the night in a nearby cabin. I'm sure the lure of observing lightning strikes has brought the majority of people to this remote sagebrush covered landscape. However, in addition to the beautiful and potentially deadly experience of atmospheric discharge, De Maria wanted people to walk the field in isolation over a 24-hour period, to experience the twilight and the transit course of the sun and the moon as they appear to set and rise, and to feel the drama in the accompanying temperature change.
Soon after the car was out of sight and the dust had settled, I became aware of the silence-it was a silence I had never before experienced. I turned and walked toward the field. The air was thin and dry. I became aware of every inhalation and exhalation. I stood still. It was so quiet I could hear the full dimension of my heartbeat. The sound of my breath and the lubb-dub sound of my cardiac cycle was a constant for my stay.
I wandered into the picturesque silvery gray-green sagebrush panorama and inhaled the sweet pungent aroma of Artemisia tridentate, emblematic of the western landscape. It's a scent heavy in antibacterial turpene compounds that, to some extent, determine the ecosystem. Thunderheads appeared over distant mountains. The air changed.
As I walked, I watched the currents of heat and particles. Light danced and changed in variants on the poles. I breathed deeper, tasted the air. In the natural darkness of the night, The Lightning Field became a prime spot to observe the stars and planets as they appeared, transforming into an all-encompassing illuminated blanket.
Here, the art asks us to fully acknowledge the existence of nature through our senses, to deepen our ability to perceive and interpret art and a wild open landscape. In a short period of time, the body feels pulses, patterns and systems of an ordered complexity that awakens the primal bond between the human brain and the natural world.
Today, rarely do people get to know the unique power of an immersive focus on all things that have life, or experience artwork that makes nature more vivid through elegant inanimate objects. As I stood in the field that night, joy crept in, as did thoughts of our greater universal identity.
If you would like to visit The Lightning Field, contact the DIA Foundation. They commissioned the sculpture and administer it from an office in Quemado, NM. It is open May-October and requires advanced reservations. No more than six people can visit a day. For more information visit: http://www.diaart.org/sites/page/56/1375.