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34 The Guardian Weekly 28.08.

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Culture

Elemental beauty … the site was chosen partly for its electrical storms, which occur on something like 60 days a year John Cliett/Dia Art Foundation

A flash of genius to outdo Turner
Art Walter de Maria, then 42, who got his patrons at the
Dia Art Foundation to buy the land and commission
drive ahead of you, south and west to the tiny town
of Quemado (population 324), where you need to
its conversion into art. De Maria and his work are be by 2:30pm. That’s when Dia caretakers pile visi-
famous in the art world. What seems strange, once tors – never more than six at a time, by order of the
Visit Walter de Maria’s ‘Lightning you’ve visited his masterwork, is how they could be artist – into a muddy 4-by-4 for an hour’s winding
Field’ in New Mexico and you’ll so little known outside of it. “Lightning Field” kept drive across rural roads. Eventually, you’re dropped
me looking and thinking for longer than I’ve ever off at a log cabin, the site’s original homestead, that’s
be amazed, writes Blake Gopnik spent with any other work of art, at least all in one even more John Wayne than the landscape around it.

O
stretch. I wandered the site nonstop from afternoon You’ll be driven out the next morning at 11am.
nly six people are allowed to see it to night of one long summer’s day, and then from You drop your bags, walk out the back door, and
every day, and only for six months of before dawn to almost noon the next. you’re in a work of art. Ideas pile up.
the year. It’s thousands of kilometres There were evening thunderstorms the first day Thought 1: De Maria’s piece is clearly about the
from the big art scenes, and hours I went, and the mountains all around were bright West, so it’s only right that there should be some
from the nearest city. Photographs with lightning. (De Maria chose the area partly for its kind of trek to get you to your destination. That’s
are not allowed, so it barely even cir- electrical storms, which occur on something like 60 why the log cabin also feels so right.
culates in pictures. There’s even a tiny chance that, days annually.) The piece looks great by storm light, Thought 2: Look at the rods, with the landscape as
if you don’t follow instructions, you could wind up when it’s likely to give as many goose bumps as the backdrop, and you could swear they’re a Hollywood
dead. And yet, for many of the few who have made Sistine ceiling. But the best thing about “Lightning special effect. Back in the 1970s, “Lightning Field”
the pilgrimage, it turns out to be “one of the great Field” is that it seems to work at least as well by any already predicted how the 21st century would con-
works of art of the last century”. other kind of light, at almost any moment that you struct a vision of future worlds still farther off.
That was the judgment of one art-historian come across it. Thought 3: Who said modern art killed classic
friend, not usually prone to hyperbole, when he There is no single “Lightning Field” – that name beauty? The sun starts setting, God’s clouds and de
returned from a summer visit to “The Lightning has the one false note in the whole piece. Every time Maria’s rods are lit deep pink, and the Romantic Sub-
Field,” a huge work of “land art” hidden in the mid- you look at it, this work feels new and acquires mean- lime takes over. Turner, eat your heart out.
dle of New Mexico. His rave got me to go. A classic ings you hadn’t thought of earlier. Its central virtue Thought 4: Art doesn’t get more minimal than
patch of sagebrush-covered land, set on an empty may be that, unlike almost any other artwork you this. With the sun behind a cloud, the rods become
plateau 2,195 metres high. A ring of jagged moun- could name, it doesn’t have a single central virtue. a never-ending grid of identical grey lines.
tains at its edges, outdoing any Hollywood western. You’d better book months in advance if you want “Lightning Field” is about framing the landscape,
And in the middle, 400 lightning rods laid out in a to visit. (The site is open daily May through October; so you understand it better and differently. Or, it’s
grid that stretches 1.6km in one direction and 1km booking, which starts in March, is by mail only.) Your the classic man-made denial of nature, using geom-
in the other. Set 67 metres apart, the rods tower to overnight visit will cost you $250 which can be paid etry to cancel out irregularity.
several times the height of a tall man; whatever kind only by check to Dia, which still owns and tends the “Lightning Field” is brutal, all about the threat of
of mound or furrow they get planted in, their tops all work. If that sounds like a lot of money, note that death and nature’s heedless wrath. Or it’s as humane
reach to the same table-flat height. food and lodging are included. as any masterpiece could be, out to fill whatever uses
The work was built in 1977 by a New Yorker named From Albuquerque airport, you have a three-hour we can put it to. Washington Post

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