No.4 / Top 10 lighting experiences: The Lightning Field, New Mexico, USA

April 06 2011 — by Jonathan Speirs
High in the remote upper plains of New Mexico, the artist Walter de Maria with the support of the Dia Art Foundation created a permanent experiential art installation. Covering an area of exactly 1 km x 1 mile the artist has installed 400 stainless steel poles with pointed tips. They are just over 22 feet in height and two inches in diameter and laid out at 220 feet intervals. It is a sculpture to be walked in as well as viewed. They are all exactly the same height at their tips, in the sense that you could place a horizontal tabletop over the area and each tip would support it. The idea was that these poles would attract lightning strikes during the period of year when electrical storms are prevalent. The website states it is not a guaranteed event, in fact that they only receive an average of three lightning strikes each month.

Walter De Maria, The Lightning Field, 1977. Photo: John Cliett. © Dia Art Foundation.

Walter De Maria, The Lightning Field, 1977

Walter De Maria, The Lightning Field, 1977

In the summer of 2006 with good friends, lighting designer Paul Gregory, stage and architectural designer Ken Billington, and journalist Emily Summerhof , we made the trip. First, we hooked up in Albuquerque and in a rental car drove for 3 hours to the Dia Art Foundation office in Quemado, New Mexico. From there we decanted into a big SUV for a further 90-minute drive to the installation. You get to stay overnight in a 3-bedroom log cabin able to accommodate six people. Obviously it’s a good idea to book in advance.

Encouraged by the Dia people we trekked out to walk among the field of poles. It was a bizarre experience to walk in this great expanse of nature among the poles looking at the surrounding distant mountain ranges. There are no other buildings visible other than our home for the evening. At one point we got a little excited when we saw lightning in the distance and hoped it boded well for later. With the odds against us, it was no surprise if a little disappointing that we didn’t see any lightning strike the field. We will just have to go back.

The next day, we rose before dawn and went back out into the field to see the sunrise. The poles became electric, reflecting the sun and the warming glow against the pale blue sky. It was quite beautiful and permitted us to clearly see all the poles that had been hard to detect when the sun was in a higher position. Well worth the hike.

Jonathan Speirs