POLES APART

IF EVER A PLACE NEEDED A GOOD JOLT, THE SNOOTY LIGHTNING FIELD IS IT

Twenty years ago, I had a coffee percolator. It was almost impossible to get a decent cup of coffee out of it, so one morning I threw it out the window of the second-floor apartment I was renting in Chicago.

I was reminded of this coffeepot over the Labor Day weekend, when a similarly poorly functioning coffee percolator was part of my experience of seeing the work of art known as the Lightning Field.

Installed on the high plains of western New Mexico in 1977, Walter De Maria's Lightning Field is generally considered a masterpiece of minimalism. It is also one of the most cunningly marketed works of art I've ever seen. Although the Lightning Field is located 35 miles from Quemado--a town of the "it's not the edge of the world but you can see it from here" variety--you can't just drive up and have a gander at the thing and leave.

To visit the Lightning Field, which must be done under the strict and unyielding guidelines of its owners, the Dia Art Center, you have to pay $85, spend an evening in a rustic cabin heated only by a wood stove and, unless you've brought your five best friends with you, share the experience with a number of strangers, some of whom you will be unable to bear the sight of by morning.

So while people with more sense were off fishing, this is how I spent the Labor Day weekend. The experience provided a window upon upper-middle-class aesthetic sensibility, an opportunity to think about elitism, a revelation about nature and an exercise in getting along with human beings I didn't like very much.

@rule:
@body:Hope and I had already decided to spend the Labor Day weekend camping in the mountains south of Quemado, when we found out we'd be able to see the Lightning Field. We'd been told by a very pleasant woman at the Lightning Field headquarters in Albuquerque to meet in front of an abandoned white building in Quemado at 2:30 Sunday afternoon and wait for a cowboy named Robert to arrive in a large truck and relieve us of $85.

We were sitting in the cafe across the street, eating bad pie and wondering which of our fellow diners would be our fellow art lovers. I'd been told to expect two couples.

"I hope it's not those people," Hope said, gesturing with her eyes toward a table at which four rather large people were sitting. "We'll have to fight over the food."
Hope is the kind of person who takes a sandwich with her when she goes shopping, and even then was complaining about the lack of fruit in the pie. We'd been told a casserole and salad fixings had been left for us, as well as bacon and eggs for breakfast, and she was convinced it wouldn't be enough. Although the large people were, in fact, our companions, as we found out when we rendezvoused at the white building, they thoughtfully brought along some apple turnovers. I was less worried about the food supply than fearful I would have to deal with people who were going to the Lightning Field to Have Their Lives Transformed by Art.

Luckily, the large people turned out to have been around enough art not to go all mushy over an environmental sculpture.

The cowboy named Robert--he had a belt buckle from the cow-milking event at the Datil, New Mexico, rodeo at which he'd won $300--drove us the 35 miles along roads that degenerated from pavement to gravel and finally to raw clay, at which point a wood cabin heaved into view. It looked insignificant, set in the broad plain, with the Sawtooth Mountains off to one horizon. The cabin was placed 100 or so feet away from and exactly halfway down the long side of the Lightning Field, which in the midafternoon sun was almost invisible. The work consists of 400 stainless-steel poles stuck in the ground. Each tapers to a spearlike point. The field measures a mile by a kilometer, 25 poles long on the mile side and 16 poles long on the other. To make up for the unevenness of the ground, the poles vary from 15 feet to 26 feet, so their tops are all at the same height. The poles are meant to attract electricity during the thunderstorms that western New Mexico, like the Valley, is subject to every summer, and indeed, there are some splendid photographs of huge, jagged forks of lightning reaching from the sky and touching the poles.

The fact that lightning actually seldom strikes the poles isn't really the point. After spending exactly 21 and a half hours in the presence of the Lightning Field, I can tell you that the point has a lot more to do with that coffee percolator.

While our companions were admiring the view, Hope and I grabbed the bedroom nearest the single bath, and threw our stuff on the beds.

Then I went out and, for some unaccountable reason, walked all around the edge of the Lightning Field, avoiding venturing inside the perimeter but careful to give a couple of the poles a good shake to see if I could loosen them. I thought about the things I assume Walter De Maria wanted me to think about--those shiny, technological poles jammed in an orderly grid upon the unruliness of nature, like we jam cities with street grids onto the desert. The spearlike points that looked as if an army were about to rise up from underground, so sharp and slick the hawks couldn't even perch on them. It also occurred to me, as I pushed through rabbitbrush and collected goatsheads and cockleburs in my socks, that you can't really stroll through nature with any degree of pleasure until the Park Service puts down a trail.

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