The Art Exhibit for the Anti-Instagram Age

If one could pinpoint where it begins and ends, one could say that the artwork originated in a simple white-stucco storefront in Quemado, New Mexico. In a low-ceilinged room, a stack of releases on a clipboard reminded visitors of the dangers of traversing uneven terrain or encountering the occasional rattlesnake. Above the head, a small clock was noted. Lightning fieldA land-art installation by Walter De Maria, completed in 1977, a place I’ve wanted to visit since I moved to the Southwest. I got the chance at the end of last month.

I tried twice to make a reservation in the usual way. You had to send a handwritten letter. Now you send out an email and hope it gets plucked from the incoming pile after midnight on February 1st, when reservations open every year. (Always more emails than available slots.) When that didn’t work, I tried writing to the publicist through the journalist’s back door.

I didn’t expect to see the installation and feel like living there: 400 precision-crafted steel poles spread across the high desert grasslands, polished two-inch tubes rodded with needle-sharp tips. The poles are anchored in the ground so that their tips reach exactly the same height, a horizontal plane a kilometer by a mile, like a giant bed of nails against the sky. The exhibition is open to no more than six visitors per day.

My wife and I followed instructions to drive five hours from Phoenix and arrive around 2pm. Around 2:15pm, we joined the rest of our party in a black Yukon and drove northeast through the juniper-filled Rhineland. It was exciting to be part of a club of six, and to be close: we would spend the night together in an old homesteader’s cabin that had been renovated as part of the installation. In a descriptive essay Lightning field Three years after its completion, Di Maria wrote that part of the artwork’s “essential content” was the contrast between a large space and a small number of visitors, and that “isolation is the essence of land art.”

I was torn. We live in an age where visits to cultural and natural sites are relentlessly documented, to the extent that fans have cataloged entire lists of “ruined” waterfalls, ancient ritual sites and Mediterranean cities on Instagram. I appreciate a good dose of privacy, most of all in a beautiful location. But if the land-art movement arose in part as a response to the closed world of urban galleries and museums, I can’t help but think that measures to protect Di Maria’s vision also helped to reproduce the art world’s tendency toward exclusion. Interest in the situation.

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The non-profit Dia Art Foundation was created in 1974 to support works of art that were particularly difficult to implement and fund because of their scale or scope, and became an important supporter of Di Maria. Preparing for construction Lightning field, Di Maria crossed southwest in a car and small plane, fixed in western New Mexico where lightning struck. He eventually found the land Dia was buying—just north of the Daytill Mountains, near the Continental Divide—thanks to an ad in a local newspaper. “Land is not the setting of the work, but a part of the work,” Di Maria wrote.

We have worn out single wide and shiny fifth wheels and a Let’s go Brandon We were surrounded by a bouquet of grasses, wildflowers, and sagebrush, until the juniper disappeared without me noticing as we traversed the ruined roads surrounded by barbed wire. That De Maria had conjured an art-world destination in such remote surroundings compelled me. At the end of an hour, like a mirage, the first posts appeared on the right side of the road. From a distance, it looked like partially built infrastructure—radio antennas or impossibly tall fence posts.

of Walter de Maria "Lightning field"
Accurately measured and visually borderless, Lightning field (John Cliett / Dia Art Foundation, New York)

Seeing the field through the window of a moving car means not seeing it at all, like a painting of an old woman transforming into a young woman, the meaning of which you cannot digest until your eyes are shaped. Banning and insisting on photography of Maria Lightning field To be experienced in doses of “a minimum of 24 hours” gave our visit the feel of an excursion. We moved out and moved our stuff into an old log cabin 200 yards north of the field, which had been renovated as part of the site’s initial construction. “Welcome Lightning field,” said our host Davey Hawkins. Hawkins, an artist who helped document de María’s work after his death, lives at the site seven months a year, taking visitors back to Quemado seven days a week. He stated only two rules: no photography and no touching the poles.

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Hawkins is gone. We went out the back door of the cabin to walk the perimeter. Similarly, the image shifted: the wonder of nature combined with the focus of museum-going. The first pole stood tall in the evening light, steady against the wind. The latter towered over a pond left by the previous night’s rain, transformed into a reflecting pool by daylight, a gleaming metal point piercing the sky’s glow and the clouds on the water’s surface. As I walked among the posts, my eyes flitted back and forth between the vast and the microcosm, the outline of the distant mountains on the horizon and the red and black striped beetles burrowing at my feet. A storm arose in the southern sky. At dusk, the pastels of the landscape deepened, a delicate flow of color peaked, then melted away into the dusk.

I spoke with one of our colleagues about the conceptual strategy Lightning field. Here we were, happy to spend hours around a rectangle of grass that didn’t look that different from the tens of thousands of other such rectangles stretching out in all directions. Accurately measured and visually borderless, Lightning field presents an enigma as to the source of its wonder. In hundreds of hours of driving southwest, I’ve never stopped to revel in the vastness of the land in quite the same way, covering most of a square mile, toggling between the ground and the horizon. Either Di Maria put one on us, we reasoned, or the power of his sculpture lies in its function as an observational device, a pair of binoculars for our self-centered and perpetually distracted selves..

In the weeks leading up to our trip, I tried to decide what I thought about the no-images rule of artwork and the careful curation of Dia’s experiences. The simplicity of the cabin betrayed a curator’s touch: no trace of decoration or paint on the walls, and in the cabinet, exactly six mugs, six plates and six bowls. A seemingly spontaneous detail was the collection of bug spray and sunscreen left behind by previous visitors. What it added it was Special, but that seemed to narrow the scope Lightning field. Expanding access may bring the risk of destructive or environmental impacts, and indeed the path to art is likely to discourage all but the most dedicated visitors. (Hawkins has already dragged a few people out of the “mud holes” this season.) People can certainly enjoy a one-hour tour and get that thrill, or camp somewhere nearby. I struggled to see the point of perpetuating artwork only to limit the number of people who could see it so acutely or how they could interact with it and share the experience.

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Alexis Lowry, a curator at Dia, said Di Maria’s opposition to photography on the site stemmed from the belief that you shouldn’t reveal artwork before you show it – photos can both “predetermine and subvert the experience before you see it”. ” As it was decades before the advent of cell phone cameras, Di Maria’s preference seems both quaint and prophetic. The disclaimer we signed asked us to refrain from photographing for the sake of Di Maria’s vision and “to respect Dia’s copyright.” But the concept of copyright seemed to me to undermine its spirit Lightning fieldEspecially if the land inhabited by the heirs to those traditions, filled with petroglyphs and ancestral pueblo pottery dating back thousands of years, is essential to the artwork.

As the sun was about to set, each pillar caught light like a thin candle flame, and for a moment the field turned into a birthday cake. Vivid clouds obscured the dark silhouette of Datils and eventually obliterated it completely. It rained heavily during dinner and after dark we set out with rubber boots stored in a bedroom closet to see lightning strike the field. Hitting a pole is a rarity, but the weather still puts on a show. We walked in mud that felt like cement, each foot carrying 10 pounds of wet soil as we put one boot forward. Bolts beyond the field illuminated the tips of the poles in silhouette; The bolts behind us illuminated rows of gleaming steel. Early in the morning, the impulse to sit and wait was rewarded with the sight of three pronghorn antelopes roaming between the poles, their faces lit in black and white in the sea of ​​brown. “We’re doing what people don’t do anymore,” someone said, sitting on the porch and watching the world go by. It’s easy to put the phone in your pocket at once. Besides, Di Maria is right. The photos don’t do it justice.

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