Land Art has captured the imagination of both art enthusiasts and adventurers alike. While Utah houses two of the most famous land works, Spiral Jetty(1970) and Sun Tunnels (1976), the neighboring states of Nevada and New Mexico also contain notable treasures. As an art historian, I am continually fascinated by Land Art (also known as earthwork), and have made it my mission to personally visit as many sites as possible. Having crossed many notable spots off my list, New Mexico became the next destination on my western journey.
Artist Walter de Maria’s The Lightning Field is one of America’s most famous earthworks. During the spring and summer months, visitors from across the globe come to rural New Mexico to experience the isolate wonder. The Lightning Field is an installation located in West-central New Mexico. Completed in 1977, the work encompasses a 1 mile by 1 kilometer plot of land adorned with 400 stainless steel poles, measuring 20 feet in height. The land also houses a cabin with room for six. Although de Maria constructs the experience, the site invites visitors to ponder the raw landscape on their own terms.
After surveying desolate regions in nearby states, de Maria chose an area that is in many ways underwhelming. Save for a few cattle farms, the surrounding acres are dry and inhospitable. However, the vastness of the land combined with the adjacent mountains, allows for some of the region’s most spectacular lightning storms.
Similar to other art movements of the 1960’s, Land Art is deeply rooted in conceptualism, employing artistic medium as a conduit to natural ecosystems and spatial relationships. Art historian Rosalind Krauss famously referred to Land Art as “sculpture in the expanded field,” speaking for a new generation of artists whose work rejected the confines of institutionalism.
From Land Art one can easily draw comparisons to the mythology of the American West. The origins of the movement coincide with the centennial anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Homestead Act of 1862, wherein Westward settlers were allowed to keep land if they cultivated it for five years. For those pioneers of the nineteenth century, the land was often harsh and unforgiving-yet the hope of independence prevailed. In the twenty-first century, America still holds remnants of the expansive lands and rugged terrain of the Western pioneers. Like Utah, the history of New Mexico is a parable of such struggle and enthusiasm.
Walter De Maria, The Lightning Field, 1977. Long-term installation in Western New Mexico. Photo: John Cliett. Copyright Dia Art Foundation.
With my cousin Dylan, a fellow land art enthusiast, I set out for my journey to New Mexico on June 24, 2012. In order to visitThe Lightning Field, one has to book placement at the site a few months in advance through the Dia Art Foundation (as an institution synonymous with Land Art, Dia has been active for nearly three decades, and owns the rights to bothThe Lightning Field and Spiral Jetty). There is no direct route to The Lightning Field: visitors must first reach the nearest town of Quemado, New Mexico, and from there be taken to de Maria’s site. The trip from Salt Lake City to Quemado, a town with only a few stores and some abandoned buildings, took much longer than anticipated and by the time we arrived we were both exhausted. We dropped our car off at Dia’s building on the town’s desolate main street and a local resident, working for Dia, arrived to take us about an hour away to the secretive location of The Lightning Field. We were joined on the long and bumpy ride by a couple from Rhode Island and their niece from California. When we first reached our destination, we walked around in amazement. The bright sun radiated down, making it too hot to walk around, but illuminating the harsh vegetation. The silence of the landscape was immediately apparent. Poles were everywhere. I could not have imagined their scale from the pictures: they seemed much bigger here than I would have thought. Spread along an axis, perfectly aligned, they evoke a sense of universality.
Around 7:30 pm, the cool weather allowed me to venture out in the field on my own. By now the sun had set on the poles a bit. They appeared to glow, along with the surrounding vegetation, now a vibrant green. My intention was to walk all the way out to the end of one row. — a task that proved harder than it appeared. About halfway down the row, I became distracted by an open knoll that looked as if it had been cleared. Remarkably free of the thick, dusty dirt that preceded it, for the next hour the knoll became my temporary haven. Taking in the vastness of the landscape was a spiritual experience. Staring out into the distance, I felt small in relation to my surroundings. As I tried to gauge the distance of the mountains, their haziness felt at once like a mirage. To me, the mountains became a metaphor of reality-composed from the subjective fibers of time, experience and memory.
As the night came to a close and I was preparing for bed, the others excitedly came in and told me there was lightning outside. Sure enough, we enjoyed about an hour’s worth of nature’s electric light show just when I thought the night was over. This lightning was unlike anything I’d ever seen. Appearing far off in the distance, divorced from thunder, the lightning lit up the night’s sky in remarkably frequent episodes. We could see shapes and lights in the horizon. “Perhaps stars or spaceships,” one of my fellow travelers said.
Indeed the experience forced us to question our preconceptions and confront the present. Visiting The Lightning Field shows how contingent one’s identity is to context. Perhaps not everyone has a transcendental experience when confronted with isolation. Yet it is the landscape-and the all encircling compass of vastness and nothingness-that offers a conduit to personal enlightenment.
Scotti Hill received her Juris Doctorate from the S.J. Quinney College of Law in 2018, with a certificate in intellectual property law. She previously received a Master’s and a Bachelor’s Degree in Art History and taught art history courses at Westminster College and the University of Utah. She continues to write for 15 Bytes and the Deseret News.
Categories: Visual Arts