At the Lightning Field

Laura Raicovich

The Lightning Field (1977) by Walter De Maria comprises 400 stainless steel poles positioned 220 feet apart in the desert of central New Mexico. The site, according to the artist, was selected for its “flatness, high lightning activity and isolation,”1 and is bounded on the east, west, and south by ridges of distant mountains. De Maria’s sharply pointed poles demarcate a grid one mile by one kilometer and six meters. The poles: two inches in diameter, average height 20.62 feet, shortest measuring 15.07 feet, tallest reaching 26.72 feet. Variations in height accommodate variations in topography. The tips of the rods are calibrated such that they could “evenly support an imaginary sheet of glass.”2

Walter De Maria, The Lightning Field, 1977.

Walter De Maria, The Lightning Field, 1977. Long-term installation in Quemado, New Mexico. Photo: John Cliett. © Dia Art Foundation.

Chaos and coincidences of history
Edward Lorenz was a meteorologist at MIT in the early 1960s. Looking for a devil in the detail of meteorological data, he was trying to forecast global weather patterns (creating forecasting models that would later be applied to economics and financial analysis). Complicated sets of equations, sometimes arbitrary webs of information, measurements of “initial conditions” churned through a primitive computer. The machine was named the Royal McBee.

During one of his sessions in the winter of 1961, Lorenz found that very small, previously considered statistically insignificant variations in the initial input of data produced extremely diverse and unpredictable outcomes. His data mapped butterfly shapes, showing that cascades of small quirks in analysis over time produced wildly different predictions. The results revealed the potential for vast inaccuracies in any long-range forecast.

Lorenz identified a “sensitive dependence on initial conditions,”3 a dependence that required stability amongst initial data without which forecasting would be unpredictable. He innovated the Lorenz Attractor, a butterfly-shaped diagram with a series of loops hovering over a three-dimensional axis. Each point that made up the curve of the loops represented data that, over the course of the model’s run, absorbed errors. The butterfly maps a repeating pattern. Due to small perturbations within the system, this pattern is aperiodic. Lorenz’s butterflies depict incidents of “chaotic” patterning. The patterns reveal something about scale—the relationship between the very large and very small. He identified these patterns by looking carefully at weather, but they were not new. Ideas of this kind had existed since the nineteenth century, but Lorenz’s butterfly made other people look more closely at these phenomena.4

A year before Lorenz examined weather patterns and identified his butterfly-shaped diagrams as indicators of chaos, Walter De Maria wrote “On the Importance of Natural Disasters.” This 1960 text describes an interest in the unpredictability of nature:

I think natural disasters have been looked upon in the wrong way.
Newspapers always say they are bad. a shame.
I like natural disasters and I think that they may be the highest form of art possible to experience.
For one thing they are impersonal.
I don’t think art can stand up to nature.
Put the best object you know next to the grand canyon, Niagara falls, the red woods.
The big things always win.
Now just think of a flood, forest fire, tornado, earthquake, Typhoon, sand storm.
Think of the breaking of the Ice jams. Crunch.
If all of the people who go to museums could just feel an earthquake.
Not to mention the sky and the ocean.
But it is in the unpredictable disasters that the highest forms are realized.
They are rare and we should be thankful for them.5

A curve, in the shape of a butterfly, can describe the future as a forecast. This forecast, Lorenz showed, may not be accurate. Maybe the curve can also describe the past, as accumulations of experience. I remembered Nabokov’s writings about the “whereabouts of the curvature…if, in the spiral unwinding of things, space warps into something akin to time, and time, in its turn warps into something akin to thought, then surely, another dimension follows—a special Space maybe, not the old one, we trust…”6

In high school I didn’t like math class. Nonetheless, I took calculus, and fell in love with a set of ideas. The shape of a curve could describe a day, an hour, a minute, a second. The curve is defined by an accrual of points which, when added together, describe a whole. While the idea had great appeal, executing the calculations required was of little interest. I tried to get out of the course, but my teacher cried, so I stayed, muddling through.

Like Lorenz’s butterfly, calculus could provide a method to visualize the process of remembering: to take a moment and break it down, dismantle time, locate the points that accumulate to create a curve, a series of memories. The vocabulary of the discipline alludes to a lyric narrative: sine, cosine, tangent. Each moment remembered constitutes a point on the curve. The voids between points map the incompleteness of recollection. No memory can be described closely enough. The opportunity to identify and add points between another and the next persists infinitely. (I tell myself to avoid being overwhelmed by the whole.) There is great pleasure in looking at the infinitesimally small aspects of an experience, as well as the infinitesimally large, or at least imagining this is possible. These are questions of scale.

Walter De Maria completed The Lightning Field on October 31, 1977. I visited the work over 25 years later. The artwork confounded and revealed perceptions of time, space, duration, and light; how changeable they are, while staying the same. Here, I recount my experiences at The Lightning Field.

Memory is a collage. Reconstituting past experience relies on a process of forgetting and transformation that, by chance or design, evolves in the course of remembering. These writings reflect individual moments remembered, or points on the curve of memory. They run parallel to Boris Pasternak’s description of “the history of culture” that “is the chain of equations in images, binding two by two the next unknown in turn with the known, and in addition this known, constant for the whole series, makes its appearance as legend, folded into the rudiments of tradition, yet the unknown, new each time—is the actual moment of the stream of culture.”7 They recall highly specific, vivid experiences of a work of art.

Visit I: October 2003
Visitors to The Lightning Field are required to stay overnight at a simple cabin just north of the grid of poles. Five friends joined me on my first visit (the cabin accommodates six). We arrived via Albuquerque, and drove several hours to a small town called Quemado. Quemado is remote, the drive aggressive in its austere beauty. We took the longer route through the El Malpais National Park. North of the road, rocks jut into the massive sky and an expanse of desert stretches to the south, topped by ancient black lava flows from which gnarled piñon trees grow. Robert Weathers, The Lightning Field’s caretaker since the artwork’s inception, met us in Quemado and drove us from the visitor office to The Lightning Field.

We arrived at The Lightning Field just after mid-day, as the sun peaked at 90 degrees to the plane of the earth. Clear sky. Sun high. The poles were ephemeral at this time of day – barely visible as the sun’s rays skimmed down the vertical shafts.

An initial thought: There’s not much out there. The sky was the biggest thing, then the desert. It was difficult to discern scale and distance. The horizon could have been 10 miles or 1,000 miles away. After the density of the horizon-less city where sky grazes buildings rather than kissing the earth, any distance seemed possible.

We abandoned our gear in the cabin and headed into the field of poles outside. Circumambulation seemed a logical starting point. We headed west and began to understand what distances meant. Moments before, the poles were willowy, evanescent, nearly not there. Their material, machine-made quality contrasted with the topographical variation of the landscape. The low-slung brush was bleached out sage-green grey-brown; dull yellow anthills contributed a variegated topography (pay attention, don’t trip). Above, quickly moving cumulus clouds. These were variables, the poles constant.

Close up, the steel poles stretched towards the sky, most over three times my height, poking sharp tips into the blue above, knitting dusty earth to sky. The poles measured this relationship, providing an inkling of scale, distance.

The poles form a grid. 400 units arranged orthogonally, their alignment as precise as their cool, smooth surfaces. Walking around the field of poles required stamina. I walked the perimeter of The Lightning Field, the edge between the landscape and the array of steel.

Time distended and contracted as the poles went from rigid regularity to seemingly haphazard arrangement and back again. Looking into The Lightning Field, the farthest poles were toothpicks in an incalculable distance. Poles aligned with their siblings along north-south and east-west axes, then a few steps on disappeared, subsequently expanding into a less regular arrangement, and again forming a pattern. And repeating again, again.

I flattened my vision to see them on the same plane, like a bar graph representing an unknown trend. Steps farther on revealed a jumble, then back to the axial arrangement, ordered and comprehensible. It was a potentially endless cycle, the possibility of infinity suggested by the arrangement of the poles, their relationship to one another, and their environment.

Amongst the poles, the grid flipped back and forth between regular alignments and seemingly chaotic configurations. I could not discern whether the smallest pole I saw in the distance was the edge of the field, or if I simply could not read its limit. From one border, the other edges of the field were unclear except at the corners of the grid. (What are the limits of my vision?) Even then, only two boundaries could be observed with certitude. The implication—infinity.

I thought about perfect geometries and the incremental, creeping expansion of the universe; the messiness of the cosmos; the slowing rotation of the earth on its axis. At The Lightning Field, I thought I felt its motion, slowing, rotating. I wanted to commit to being in this place. I would have stayed longer.8

Phenomenologically, I was overwhelmed. Immersion is a weak description. The grid of poles and the daily cycle of the sun suggested infinity. Variations in desert temperature were significant from midday to night and back again; a loud gulp of quiet; an intense aural experience of silence for lack of rustling trees or human sounds only broken by occasional animal noises. (Could not sleep, despite being deeply tired, even half- awake dreams were impossible, too quiet, no comfort of white noise, the most solid silence.) Constant recalibration of human scale in contrast and continuity with the poles, sky, and earth was required; and anticipation of possible, but rare, lightning a constant.

The Lightning Field defines a particular organization of space, experience, time, and light. The artwork is permanent; the experience is variable. The Lightning Field is not a magical place. It demonstrates an accumulation of specific experiences. Within the austerity of the desert, there are few distractions from the acts and implications of perception. At The Lightning Field my experience of space began with the rational structure of the grid, which was eventually exposed for less rational behavior. The repeated unit of the pole was not significant, only its holistic engagement between human scale and the landscape and the sky. Then the effects of light, the anticipation of cycles of change through the course of the day and night, and the possibility of the unpredictable are all tangible.

The cycle of the day led to an expanded view, beyond the poles, leaving behind the limits of the mile and the kilometer. The rational side of time and measurement fell away. The coin flipped. The other side of time took hold (irrational sister). Time and space were concurrently elongated and condensed, as in the semi-wakeful state of insomnia, alluding to infinity. (When you cannot sleep the night lasts forever.)

On a microscale, the breadth of the landscape was captured in each anthill. Magnifying the infinite surface of each composite rock and particle of sand mirrored the vast landscape. The relative relationship of space to distance was malleable and the mountains and sky felt as close as the nearest pole, or at an unfathomable distance. The experience was one of infinity.

Later, the sun’s position in the sky shifted. As it began to set, the sun’s rays struck the poles at increasingly oblique angles. The poles took on the look of the sky. They changed color, deepening and distinct from the backdrop of the landscape. At once and only briefly, the sharp tips collected the energy of the fading sun. Those flames could be real.

Just as fast as they were lit, they extinguished themselves. The sun reclined over the westerly ridge, and the poles absorbed a red-pink-orange sunset. Lurid, ridiculous colors for steel poles. The now-cool sky blanketed the hot colors. Blue grey, steel grey, deep blue, midnight. And then stars. We watched for the moon.

As celestial points poked through a velvet darkness, the flat sky arched into a vast dome. We lay on the dusty desert floor and felt the density of space above. (Other memories of entering cool interiors of Baroque churches in Rome; allowing the retina to adjust to the low light, walking up the aisle to the transept, and taking in the majesty of the painted dome, the “sky” filled with saints and putti, simultaneously ephemeral and as heavy as the stone and mortar of the church.)

The night sky weighed on us. At The Lightning Field, the constellations were clear and precise; they appeared to descend towards the desert floor. (I could have touched them.)

That marvelous mess of constellations, nebulae, interstellar gaps and all the rest of the awesome show provoked in me an indescribable sense of nausea, of utter panic, as if I were hanging from earth upside down on the brink of infinite space, with terrestrial gravity still holding me by the heels but about to release me at any moment.9

Walter De Maria, The Lightning Field, 1977.

Walter De Maria, The Lightning Field, 1977. Long-term installation in Quemado, New Mexico. Photo: John Cliett. © Dia Art Foundation.

Chaos and scale
There is a fundamental difference between Newtonian paradigms and chaos theory. Newtonian science relies on individual units, and the idea that the examination of these units over time will coalesce into a fuller understanding of the system. This genre of scientific exploration rests on examining parts that will shed light on their larger counterparts. By contrast, chaos theory contends that the individual unit is irrelevant. Instead, what matters is the recurring symmetry between scales within the system. “Chaos theory looks for scaling factors and follows the behavior of the system as iterative formulae change incrementally… It is a systemic approach, emphasizing overall symmetries and the complex interactions between microscale and macroscale levels.”10

At The Lightning Field I first relied on the regularities of Newtonian principles – relationships of measure, distance, and time. I examined the grid and its individual components, the poles: 400 poles demarcating the expansive grid, four poles together creating a 440 square-foot unit. I understood scale by walking the mile-by-kilometer perimeter of The Lightning Field.

Over the length of the day, the experience of the work extended beyond the impact of the individual unit, each pole, each row or aisle, irregular even in its regularity. The grid, a mile by a kilometer and six meters; variations in pole height; mathematics in service of aesthetics. The grid is a simple tool, a structure for experience beyond what is quantifiable. Even standing at The Lightning Field’s borders, its edges are difficult to discern. The conceptualization of the mathematics of a grid, or a mile, or a kilometer, provides the fixed means to understand differences in scale. The poles are only a device for seeing something larger, infinite.

More mathematical histories that allude to the infinite
Benoit Mandelbrot’s work from the 1960s and ‘70s embodies the development of theories of chaos and fractal geometry. His vibrant and swirling illustrations of fractals form psychedelic patterns that each repeat infinitesimally inside themselves. They describe the relationship between the very, very small and the very, very large, and we see that they are similar. Mandelbrot described the concept of consistency on varying scales. “Self-similarity” had been extant in scientific thought for centuries. Is a sperm a miniature human, just greatly reduced? Are whole universes contained in a drop of water?11 Then microscopes, telescopes, and other technological advancements revealed the inaccuracy of sperm-as-mini-men, or self-similarity.

Mandelbrot re-envisioned self-similarity in nature through ideas of consistency on the basis of scale. He examined fractional dimensions and mapped “complex couplings between scales of different lengths which are at the center of fractal geometry [and] are found everywhere in nature—in cloud forms, mountain contours, tree grains.”12

At greater levels of complexity, Mandelbrot located repeating patterns of scale that provided new information about the behavior of whole systems. Repeating patterns (as in a grid of steel poles in the desert) imply this kind of infinity, the possibility for endless expansion and contraction.

The Koch curve, named for its inventor, Helge von Koch, reveals the affinities between Mandelbrot’s ideas and his procedure for creating fractals. The Koch curve is an equilateral triangle; each side’s middle third becomes one side of a second equilateral triangle to form a Star of David. Add further triangles to each subsequent triangle to create an infinitely expandable yet symmetrical geometric form.

While the form becomes increasingly complex through the addition of triangles, it remains too regular to reflect most natural phenomena. Mandelbrot reasoned that by adding an element of chance, or error, (or a sudden lightning storm?) into the formula, he could increase understanding of the phenomenon, as most naturally occurring systems are formed in part by chance.13 In fact, a string of Koch curves bears a striking similarity to a very regular coastline.

Adding the element of chance through algorithms is, according to Mandelbrot, “the only mathematical tool available to help map the unknown and the uncontrollable. The [traditional] physicists’ concept of randomness is shaped by theories in which change is essential at the microscopic level, while at the macroscopic level it is insignificant. Quite the contrary…the importance of chance remains constant on all levels, including the macroscopic one.”14

Mandelbrot had his set of data for regularity; The Lightning Field has the grid, steel poles, and the predictability of the day’s cycle. To map the macroscopic, Mandelbrot’s introduction of chance was algorithmic. At The Lightning Field, it is weather, light, insects, birds, plants; alternate algorithms.

Visit II: July 2004
Thinking of Lorenz, I returned to The Lightning Field with two colleagues. Three of us occupied the cabin. Enter the unpredictability of nature against the regularity of the grid of steel poles in the desert.

Again we arrived at midday. The sun followed us in the Suburban as we traversed miles of desert and cattle guards to arrive at The Lightning Field. In the distance, over the southern ridge, we could see weather approaching. Grey-black clouds with diagonal smears extended towards the desert’s caked surface like erasure marks on a charcoal drawing. A smudge far away. How long would it take to arrive? Would the storm shift westward, or traverse The Lightning Field? Would lightning strike?

We veered off the rutted dirt road and arrived at the cabin; the storm approached. Maybe we had two hours. We quickly went into the poles, trying to gauge the impact of the changeable light. White clouds passed swiftly, one of us in shadow, the other in sun as we separated, avoiding anthills.

It was July, when it is said the incidence of lightning is highest. I remembered Lorenz. Patterns are unpredictable. Elements of chance are always lurking. The dark clouds approached, sun faded, blocked by the low cloud cover. We were scattered on the south side of The Lightning Field and the weather was rolling in fast.

It was an impossibly cinematic scene. The grey smears overhead came closer. We retreated to the cover of the cabin’s porch. The temperature dropped dramatically. The wind intensified. A cluster of small white butterflies hovered agitatedly in front of the porch, between us and The Lightning Field, and the storm. (Lorenz, Nabokov…)

We watched distant lightning, wondering if it would stay on track, moving from the south-eastern ridge towards the cabin to the north and west. As branches of light sprawled across the distant sky, splintering at severe angles, we counted and waited for claps of thunder. We measured the distance of the storm.

Many hued, breaking into infinite fragments, multiplying itself lightning flash on flash, it leapt the platform and was scattered there.15

As we counted, the marking of time diminished. The storm soon arrived at the southern limits of the poles. Lingering above the grid, and in stark contrast to its linear arrangement, webs of light sprawled and contracted against the slate-colored sky. As these tangles hovered over The Lightning Field, I held my breath. The light and sound came almost simultaneously.

“…brandishing a twig as though it was lightning…”16
“…the summer lightning would be playing… surprised by transparency, as though by an illness, sapped from within…the sky was restless.”17

The lightning flashed in stark contrast with the regularity of the poles. Despite their height, the poles did not attract the splinters of light. The weather remained high above The Lightning Field.

The storm intensified. Large drops of rain fell, and quickly froze. We sat on wood benches on the cabin’s porch, seeking some shelter from the weather. Crystalline, bead-like hail-stones bounced off the wooden floorboards of the porch, and strong winds blew. We moved inside the cabin leaving the back door open to see the storm’s effects on The Lightning Field framed in the wooden doorway, unmediated by glass.

The hail increased in size, and the wind picked up. Dime-sized hail-stones now careened from the porch inside the cabin through the open door and despite the early afternoon hour, the sun was completely obscured by soot-tinted storm clouds.

Wind and hail blew through the open door; the gusts were too strong to keep it open and we watched The Lightning Field through the small, south-facing window. Hail-stones pelted the surface of the roof. The sound of their dull pings was regularly overridden by claps of bass-heavy thunder. My sternum reverberated. Outside, the poles were steely gray, reflecting the flat light caught in the clouds rather than hot flashes of lightning. The grid didn’t change.

Inside the cabin other distractions materialized. Floor boards, slightly warped, a hair’s width separating one from the next. Normally they admitted fine, desert dust, but today, fleeing from the storm, flying ants emerged. Hundreds surfaced from between the boards, swarming inside the cabin. (I learned later, this was their mating season.) We flung the door open, and were caught at a border between tiny flying beasts and jagged hail-stones, amid the violence of nature. Hail turned to punishing rain, as the temperature rose slightly. The ants left as quickly as they came.

Rain passed over the cabin, now a softer sound against the roof. And the low, obsidian clouds dispersed, revealing a logy sun setting over the western ridge. There would be no luscious sunset tonight. The poles picked up the dying light, glowing an anemic gold against the gray, saturated landscape. The weather had passed. It had only taken 30 minutes.

“The rain, which had been a mass of violently descending water…was reduced all at once to oblique lines of silent gold breaking into short and long dashes.”18

We wandered outside, stunned by the storm. We avoided brown eyes of pooled rainwater that accumulated in valleys between anthills. Now soaked, the vegetation lost some of its dustiness.

I walked around the cabin and on the west-facing porch and discovered a thick carpet of dead and dying flying ants. They must have slid from the roof, the rain washing them down its easy slope. Their appearance and disappearance inside the cabin was sudden and peculiar. And then, there they were, dead, water-logged and piled two inches thick on the soaked wood platform.

As darkness swept the sky, the clouds moved northwest, away from The Lightning Field, and the coyotes began. The sound was thin at first, its pitch tentative as the setting sun. But the coyote sounds strengthened; perhaps they grew in number or proximity. We couldn’t tell, but ate dinner to their disquieting serenade. The night sky was clear, too many stars. Satellites described distinctive arcs, moving too fast for nature across our broad field of vision. The desert floor was drenched with rainwater, and our boots suctioned in the mud. The moon’s shy face revealed only a sliver, but starlight was strong enough for the poles to pick up their silver. We watched time, light, and distance compress over The Lightning Field.

The dome of the sky was palpable, papered in stars. I went to bed, leaving my light on long enough to attract a flurry of delicate moths. (Nabokov, Lorenz…)

Like moons around Jupiter, pale moths revolved about a lone lamp.19

Then I slept. Maybe I was getting used to the elevation, to the extremes of this place. (As I said, I would have stayed longer.)

I woke up early, before sunrise, and went outside. The sun was at the cusp of the ridge, ochre rays preceding its arrival. The sky was already a lucid blue. The weather of the day before had brought out animals, the low brush home to many species that appeared only at prescribed times of day (coyotes at night, jack rabbits and birds in the early morning hours). At the edge of my peripheral vision, I saw a flying object about four inches in diameter (after the ants, I assumed it was a massive desert insect). It buzzed as it flew, darting erratically, from one cluster of plants to the next. As it dashed past, I saw that the mass was actually two delicate creatures. Hummingbirds. They were both bright and iridescent; one green, the other red. They flew with wings blurred by the speed of their movement, so close to one another they seemed to be one object, circling one another, looking for the desert flora the rainfall had called from hibernation.

As though reflecting the hummingbirds’ plumage, the poles also became iridescent; the sun warmed the air. The poles’ sharp tips lit up, as at sunset on my first visit, but more subtly in the graceful morning light. They retained their gray iridescence, reflecting the sky. Robert Weathers arrived at 11:30 am. He asked after the storm, and we recounted its visit to The Lightning Field. We reported the strange effects of the weather, showed him the dead ants, described the disquieting flatness of the light and the calls of the coyotes. He was, predictably, unimpressed.

This retrospective diary is incomplete. It only touches uncertainly on memories of my time at The Lightning Field; points on the curve of recall. These memories comprise an arabesque, a calculus exercise I would rather not solve. Infinity and chance reside between each point along the curve (like a long night spent waiting for sleep to come). Calculating time and space through mathematics and measurement represent methods of rationalizing a point within the universe. The experience of that location swells with accumulations, additions, barnacles, observations, thoughts. Not just errant memories but other intrusions affect the curve: coincidences of history, applications of chaos, scale, unpredictability, infinity.

The Lightning Field presents measurement, space, and time in combinations that alternately adhere to and confound regularity, suggesting something far less rational, like the inaccuracy of a memory, or the way lightning sprawls across the desert sky.

Looking deeply is a question of scale: How close? How far? It may not matter, you might see the same thing. The system may be more important. Theories of chaos present a universe within which the layering of scale and facture offer an alternate view. The Lightning Field evokes references to geometries, infinities, and the incremental expansion of the universe. The artwork proposes a phenomenological responsibility: digest the experience, become physically, visually engaged. Remember.

Laura Raicovich lives in New York City and is deputy director of Dia Art Foundation.


  1. Walter De Maria, “The Lightning Field: Some Facts, Notes, Data, Information, Statistics, and Statements,” Artforum (April 1980), p. 58.
  2. Ibid.
  3. James Gleick, Chaos (New York: Viking Press, 1987), p. 23.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Walter De Maria, “On the Importance of Natural Disasters (1960),” in Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art, eds. Kristine Stiles and Peter Selz (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), p. 527.
  6. Vladimir Nabokov, Speak Memory (New York: Vintage International, 1989), p. 301.
  7. Boris Pasternak, Safe Conduct, An Autobiography and Other Writings (New York: New Directions, 1958), p. 91.
  8. It is worth noting that while at school at the University of California at Berkeley in the late 1960s, De Maria knew La Monte Young and through this affiliation with Young became familiar with the work of John Cage.
  9. Nabokov, pp. 225-226.
  10. Katherine N. Hayles, Chaos Bound: Orderly Disorder in Contemporary Literature and Science (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990), p. 170.
  11. Gleick, p. 115.
  12. Hayles, p. 165.
  13. Ibid., pp. 166–167.
  14. Ibid., pp. 167–168.
  15. Pasternak, p. 19.
  16. Ibid., p. 133.
  17. Ibid., p. 151.
  18. Nabokov, p. 216.
  19. Ibid., p. 146