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Sightlines

Photo: Courtesy of NRAO/AUI

Out along Highway 60, 700 miles east of Los Angeles, photons are being gathered, the raw material for a fantastical poetics forged from a confluence of man, nature and technology. Within 60 miles of one another stand two installations that harvest and transmute signals from the heavens — Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field, the crown jewel of the land art movement, and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s Very Large Array of (radio) telescopes, the world’s premier constellation of radio astronomy dishes (which lent their singular visual power and scientific authority to the film Contact). The Lightning Field is in theory a work of art, while the VLA is, in practice, a work of science, but a recent trip to the two facilities caused me to again question that tired dichotomy. If there was ever a rebuttal to C.P. Snow’s The Two Cultures, it is to be found on that small section of New Mexico highway.

The Lightning Field, 1977,Quemado, New Mexico

(Photo by John Cliett/Courtesy: DIA Art Foundation)

Set remotely in the high desert outside the tiny hamlet of Quemado, De Maria’s masterpiece has been deliberately sited to make it available only to the most committed traveler — a three-hour drive from Albuquerque, followed by another hour along dirt roads. Arriving midafternoon, first impressions of the Field are surprisingly underwhelming. Four hundred stainless steel poles arrayed in a grid of 25 by 16 are spread across an area a mile wide by a kilometer deep, but with the sun high overhead they virtually disappear into the landscape. Long before the hand of the artist reveals itself, the soul of the engineer blazes forth. In the minimalist notes found in a black binder in the visitor’s cabin, De Maria explains that each pole has been individually constructed so that all the tips peak at precisely the same elevation — you could rest a huge sheet of glass upon them perfectly level, like a tabletop for the gods. To achieve such preci- sion, the site of each pole was meticulously surveyed and the heights individually calculated — they vary from 15 feet to 27 feet, with the average standing at 20 feet 7.5 inches. This crystalline perfection is echoed in the Pythagorean proportions of the grid itself, which is four squared by five squared, and in the distance between each point, 220 feet, exact to within 1/25 of an inch.

Each pole is in effect a huge conducting wire that pokes up into the sky, calling down streams of electric current from statically charged clouds above. When thunderstorms roll overhead, lightning “senses” the tips and is guided toward them in a cascading blitz of electrons that completes a circuit between sky and ground. So intense is the heat generated it can melt the steel points, and charred grass around the bases testifies to the thermal force of electron flow. Lightning is nature’s arsonist, a primary cause of wildfires the world over and a vital element of ecosystems which rely on periodic fires to cleanse underbrush and crack open seed cases. Yet although electric currents have been studied since the late 18th century, the process by which lightning occurs, the dielectric breakdown of the air between cloud and ground, is little understood. How, why and where lightning strikes is currently the subject of intense research at the Lightning Mapping Array in the Magdalena Mountains just east of De Maria’s installation.

In truth, only about 5 percent of the Lightning Field’s visitors are present during a storm, and the work’s primary relationship is not with electrons but with their evanescent cousins, the photons, “atomic” elements of light. As the sun slips lower in the sky, more and more rays catch the polished surface of the poles — which now begin to shine with a pale, silvery fire. Previously camouflaged, the grid emerges from the background landscape like a ghost materializing from the ether. Imperceptibly the columns become sentinels of light, pencil-fine filaments gleaming gently against the high-desert backdrop.

Then comes a near-mystical transformation: As the sun hovers closer to the ground the light takes on a pinkish hue, the merest shade of rose at first then deepening gradually to a dense copper tone, burnished metal fresh from the furnace, glowing with incandescent silence. A Cartesian grid of vertical flames is now superimposed upon the plain as if a mathematical spirit has descended to the earth. Momentarily, time and space are suspended. Earth and sun, light and matter, man and nature, theory and practice unite in one blazing brief performance, a symbiotic triangulation of the biological, technological and cosmological. No putative “theory of everything” could be more demonstrative of the holism that binds us all within the cosmic web.

 

De Maria’s artistic genius is hardly in question — he is rightfully in the pantheon. Moreover, given the ephemeral nature and often downright shoddy quality of the materials favored by many contemporary art practitioners, he may well be the only artist of the 20th century whose work will still be viewable in the next millennium. (The divas of the digital arts don’t even stand a chance!) What is less obvious is De Maria’s contribution as an empirical scientist. Like the great Mayan ziggurat of Chichen Itza, the Lightning Field must be seen as a fantastical kind of observatory, a place from which to monitor and record the cosmological dance. At sunset on the day of spring and autumn equinox, setting rays catch the side of the ziggurat known as El Castillo, sending a serpent of golden light flowing up its flank. Though De Maria works in steel rather than stone, the Lightning Field is inspired by a similar impulse: Its grid is aligned perfectly east-to-west to take maximal advantage of the sun’s daily demise. The day I visited was the summer solstice, the longest of the year, and it seemed as if the Lightning Field had been specially engineered for that one endlessly lingering sunset.

Unlike Western astronomy, in which instruments have always been pointed upward, Mayan stargazers focused their attention on the horizon, charting the course of the heavenly bodies by reference to the borderline between earth and sky. In his cabin notes, De Maria also insists that the intersection between sky and earth provides the foundation for his work, for only at the horizon do we find the “triple point” meeting of the realms of man, nature and cosmos. “There is no point in seeing the Lightning Field from the air,” he tersely admonishes those who might think of chartering a plane. Just as lightning is attracted to the poles by the strong electrical grounding they supply, so De Maria exhorts the visitor to ground thyself.

An hour’s drive from the Lightning Field, the Very Large Array provides one of the most spectacular incarnations of Western astronomical practice, an installation that also confounds the supposed distinction between art and science. Here too we find an array, this time configured in a “Y” shape, 27 dishes stretched along three vast arms each 13 miles in length. (Both facilities were constructed simultaneously, the VLA from 1973 to 1980, the Lightning Field in 1977.) Since its opening in 1980 the VLA has been responsible for many of the past half-century’s most astounding discoveries in radio astronomy. It is here that astronomers first detected the enigmatic phenomena known as Einstein rings, circular perturbations of light that result from gravitational lensing and which may be used to probe fundamental parameters of the cosmos. Microquasars and ice crystals on Mercury were both discovered here, and the VLA was the first astronomical instrument to image “cosmic jets,” huge tails of gas and radiation emitted from the cores of quasars.

Yet the VLA is also inadvertently one of the most extraordinary works of land art ever constructed. Scattered across the San Agustin plain, this unparalleled collection of dishes — each one 25 meters across and weighing 230 tons, the whole network mobilized by the largest-gauge rail system on the planet — nestles in its mountain-ringed bowl as if the earth has given rise to an eruption of enormous blossoms. Starflowers turning in unison to catch fragile photons from the farthest reaches of our universe, the VLA dishes, like De Maria’s lightning poles, reflect and refract and enable us to see anew the infinite nuances of heavenly light.

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