Sunday, May 8, 2011

Outstanding in Our Field

Quemado, N.M.
If you read this blog for the baseball coverage, you can move right along (though there is a baseball analogy buried below). If you dig the forays into conceptual land art, however, this is for you.

Past trips have taken us to notable high-art installations like Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty, but I think this is the first time we've made it to two major land-art locations on a single trip: Michael Heizer's Double Negative and Walter De Maria's Lightning Field. Rob described the former a few days ago—here's an additional view.

As fantastic and unmatchable an experience as that was, however I think Lightning Field probably takes the cake.

By my admittedly rough count somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 people have visited Lightning Field since it was installed in the late 1970s. Many have written about it, including fellow Chicagoan Erin Hogan and Geoff Dyer. One thing they both stress—as does De Maria himself—is that you have to go there to understand it. It's maintained by the New York–based Dia Art Foundation, which has a small office in Quemado, New Mexico.

Any simple description makes it sound idiotic: Lightning Field is 400 stainless-steel poles arranged in a mile-by-kilometer grid in the desert. A maximum of six people are dropped off at a cabin there each afternoon during the season (May–October) and picked up the following day at noon. It is near nothing. You spend most of your time wandering around an otherwise unremarkable field, pockmarked with gopher holes, anthills, and elk shit. There is nothing to see except the sky, mountains on the horizon, an occasional group of cows or birds, and the poles.

The surface appeal of spectacular peril—"One of those might get hit by lightning while we're here!"—gives way very rapidly to a high consciousness that the real project here is yourself. Lightning Field is a highly interior experience. You walk the project alone, quickly losing track of the other people and even (as I did) the location of the cabin. There is no sound apart from the wind. You have to focus on the uneven ground as you walk, but there's something about the structure of the grid—which recedes in consciousness even as you walk deeper into it—that leads to a heightened mental state. On my first walk, I was berating myself for not bringing a notebook and trying desperately to remember the phrases and ideas that were flooding my head. That didn't happen on subsequent walks, though I did fall deep into conversation with myself—something that's more tolerable in a vast New Mexican field than in a crowded subway car.

If anything, where you might expect the grid to impose a sort of order on the landscape, it instead invites confusion and thoughts of rationalist hubris. The grid is probably most plainly in view from the air, but on the ground, amid all the poles, the orthogonal and diagonal vectors are easy to confuse. The poles are placed and sized with ridiculous precision—the claim is that they are all the same height (though not the same length, due to slight variations in the topography), to the extent that a sheet of glass could lie flat atop them. This may be literally true, or it may not, but I take the claim to be the important part of the artwork, presenting at once the deliberate nature of De Maria's construction and a critique of the mania for precision embodied in industrial manufacturing. The poles are as finely made and located as possible, but that matters only within the context of the work itself. To the field, as it was before the poles arrived and as it is today, the measurement and consistency is irrelevant. The imposition of rationality leads only to trouble, as it must eventually somehow fail its own standard—whereas the existing landscape remains forever uninterested in the question.

It's a tidy lesson in the overarching futility of attempts to impose too much order, or to seek (as Frank Lloyd Wright did) the "underlying geometry" of nature, when traditional geometry and topography are so often not susceptible to genuine comparison. The experience that leads to this lesson connects in my mind to the flow of a baseball game in that unlike some other human activities, baseball provides a certain number of constructive rules but allows individual action to play out in tremendous variation within it. The minutiae of my experience at Lightning Field is as unremarkable as yet another rolling grounder to shortshop. But at the same time, the potential for something strange, wonderful, or tragic to occur in both scenarios is what rewards concentration on those moments. (The analogy is not perfect, since while Lightning Field is both an artwork and a comment on other artworks, it's not clear to me how one baseball game could be a comment on or an intellectual reaction to another one.)

Lightning Field also made me think of Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a book I used to read with some regularity but fell away from in my late twenties. It's still a satisfying work, however, for its reminder that our encounters with mechanistic reality (like a motorcycle) and our time in wide-open landscapes are really just proxies for getting closer to—and making clearer to ourselves—our own thoughts.

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