If it is possible to identify exactly where it begins and ends, one can say that the work of art began in a white-stucco storefront in Quemado, New Mexico. Inside the low-ceilinged room, dozens of suspended objects on a clipboard remind visitors of the dangers of walking on uneven ground, or encountering the occasional rattlesnake. Upstairs, the small clock is gone. Electric Earth, a landscape painting commissioned by Walter De Maria that was completed in 1977, has been a place I have wanted to visit since I moved to the Southwest. Last month, I finally got the chance.
I tried twice to make the backup the normal way. You used to send a handwritten letter. Now you’re sending the mail and hoping it will be plucked from the pile that arrives shortly after midnight on February 1, when reservations open each year. (There are always more emails than available slots.) When that didn’t work, I tried the journalistic back door—writing to the publisher.
What I didn’t expect was that seeing the installation would feel like living in it: 400 precision-crafted steel poles spread across a tall grassy field, two-inch polished tubes enclosing needle-sharp rods. The stakes are driven into the ground so that their ends reach the same height, a horizontal plane kilometer by kilometer, like a great bed of nails in the sky. The exhibition is open to a maximum of six visitors a day.
My wife and I had driven five hours from Phoenix and followed instructions to arrive at 2:00 p.m. At 2:15 in the afternoon, we joined the rest of our team in the dark Yukon, driving northeast through the flat juniper landscape. It was nice to be part of a club of only six, and close, too: We would spend the night together in an old cabin renovated as part of the installation. In an expository essay Electric Earth three years after its completion, De Maria wrote that part of the “essential theme” of the painting was the contrast between the large space and the small number of visitors, and that “solitude is the essence of Land Art.”
I was torn. We live in a time where trips to cultural and natural sites are endlessly documented, to the point that aficionados have written a complete list of waterfalls, ancient ceremonial sites, and Mediterranean towns “spoiled” by Instagram. I appreciate a good dose of privacy, especially in a beautiful setting. But if the art world movement arose in part as a response to the closed world of urban galleries and museums, I couldn’t help but think that the measures that protect De Maria’s vision also worked to recreate the art world of exclusion together. preoccupation with nature.
The non-profit Dia Art Foundation was created in 1974 to support works of art whose scale or location made it difficult to make and finance, and became an important supporter of De Maria. Preparing to build Electric Earth, De Maria crossed the Southwest by car and small plane, repairing lightning in western New Mexico. Dia eventually found the land he was going to buy—north of the Datil Mountains, near the mainland—because of an ad in the local newspaper. De Maria wrote: “Land is not a condition of work, but a part of work.
We passed decaying single-wides and shiny fifth-wheels and a Let’s go Brandon flag as we turned the winding roads lined with barbed wire, until, without my noticing, the juniper disappeared, and all that surrounded us was a bunch of grass, wild flowers, and sage brush. I was compelled by the fact that De Maria had a world-class art gallery so far away. At the end of the hour, this morning, the first poles appeared on the right side of the road. From a distance, it looked like unfinished infrastructure—radio antennas or high wire poles.
Seeing the field through the window of a moving car, somehow, not seeing it at all, like the image of an old woman changing into a young woman, images whose meaning you cannot digest until your eyes adjust. . De Maria’s ban on photography and insistence that Electric Earth we must experience the volume of “minimum 24 hours” making our visit feel like a trip. We went out and moved into an old log cabin about 200 meters north of the field, renovated as part of the original construction of the site. “Welcome to Electric Earth,” our host, Davey Hawkins, said. Hawkins, an artist who helped preserve De Maria’s work after his death, lives at the site seven months a year, and shuttles visitors back and forth to Quemado seven days a week. He stated only two rules: no photography and no touching the poles.
Hawkins left. We went out the back door of the house to walk around. And just like that, the picture changed: The fear of nature was combined with the focused attention of going to the museum. The first pole stood tall in the daylight, steady against the wind. The second was high above a pool left by the previous night’s rain, and transformed by the light of day into a bright lake, the glittering metal piercing the light of the sky and the clouds above the water. As I walked between the poles, my eyes darted back and forth between the sky and the microcosm, between the distant flat mountains and the red and black striped beetles that scuttled at my feet. A storm arose in the southern sky. As the afternoon wore on, the pastels of the earth deepened, the subtle vibrancy of colors heightened, and then faded into dusk.
I had a conversation with one of our partners about the core logic strategy of Electric Earth. Here we had the pleasure of spending hours walking around a rectangle of grass that was not so different from the tens of thousands of other such rectangles that jutted out in all directions. Accurately measured and unlimited, Electric Earth reveals confusion about the source of this miracle. In the hundreds of hours I’ve driven Southwest, I’ve never stopped reveling in the vastness of the land in the same way, speeding through the square miles, meandering through the land and its length. Perhaps De Maria has imposed one on us, we reasoned, or his image’s power lies in its function as a viewing device, like a pair of binoculars that emits the infinite due to our independence and infinite distraction..
In the weeks leading up to our visit, I tried to decide what I thought about the rule of no artwork, and Dia’s careful control of the experience. The simplicity of the cabinet reflected the curator’s touch: no trace of decoration or paint on the wall, and in the cupboard, exactly six mugs, six plates, and six dishes. A seemingly random detail is the collection of bug spray and sunscreen left by previous guests. What did it add to it it was special, but it seemed to narrow the scope of Electric Earth. While expanding access may bring the risk of vandalism or environmental impacts, the actual approach to art may discourage all but the most dedicated visitors. (Hawkins had already pulled several people out of “mud holes” this season.) People could certainly enjoy an hour-long visit and experience the same fun, or camp nearby. I have struggled to see the point of keeping a work of art indefinitely only to limit the number of people who can see it acutely, or to constrain how they can interact with it and share the experience.
Alexis Lowry, curator of the Dia, said that De Maria’s objection to photography at the site comes from the belief that a painting should not be revealed before it is shown – that photographs can both “overshadow and undermine the experience before you see it.” Coming, as it happened, decades before with the advent of cell phone cameras, De Maria’s choice may seem mundane and prophetic. The release waiver we signed asked us to refrain from taking photos out of De Maria’s opinion “and out of respect for Dia’s copyright.” But the idea of copyright seemed to me to undermine the spirit of Electric Earthespecially if the world—filled withthe petroglyphs and pottery of the Ancestral Pueblo dating back thousands of years, erected by the heirs of those traditions—were essential to this work of art.
Near sunset, the clean tips of each pole caught the light like a candle flame, and for a moment, the field turned into a birthday cake. The wispy clouds cover the craggy silhouette of Datils and finally erase it completely. It rained for a long time while we were eating dinner, and after dark, we took the rubber boots that were kept in the bedroom and prepared to see the lightnings lighting up the field. It’s rare to hit a pole, but the weather still puts on a show. We walked around in the cement-like mud, each leg carrying 10 kilograms of wet soil as we put one shoe in front of the other. Bolts from across the field lit up the ends of the posts like silhouettes; the bolts behind us lit up rows of gleaming steel. In the morning, the desire to sit and look out was rewarded by the sight of three three-horned antelopes wandering between the poles, their faces shining in black and white against the brown sea. “We do things that people don’t do anymore,” someone said: sit on the porch and watch the world go by. Once, it was easy to leave my phone in my pocket. Besides, De Maria was right. The photos don’t do it justice.