photo credit: Michael Angelo
A couple of weeks ago I recommended the book-length essay At the Lightning Field by Laura Raicovich, recently published by Coffee House Press. It is a beautiful example of a long essay that responds to a work of art in a uniquely linguistic manner, the sort of thing that I myself enjoy writing, and which I feel we should see more of from creative nonfiction writers. In addition to deploying various ideas around memory, mathematics, and aesthetics, the book combines quotations from authors like Vladimir Nabokov, as well as Raicovich’s own descriptions and thoughts, often made in enjambed free verse.
Since I made that recommendation, I was able to interview Raicovich to find out a little more about her lengthy fascination with The Lightning Field, how her book came together, and some further reflections on some of the ideas found therein.
In addition to being the author of At the Lightning Field, Raicovich works as the president and executive director of the Queens Museum. She is also the author of A Diary of Mysterious Difficulties (Publication Studio), a book based on Viagra and Cialis spam, and an editor of Assuming Boycott: Resistance, Agency, and Cultural Production (OR Books).
Scott Esposito: Your book revolves around your experiences with The Lightning Field, a work of art left in the New Mexico wilderness by sculptor Walter De Maria. How many times have you visited The Lightning Field? (if you could, please elaborate a little here as to the time frame you’ve made these visits over, how long it takes to get out there from where you live, etc)
Laura Raicovich: I made at least 7 trips to The Lightning Field over a ten year period. At the time, I worked for Dia Art Foundation, the entity that maintains the Field, and part of my work involved ensuring the continuing isolation of the Field. At the time, there was interest in development of the high dessert throughout this area of central, western New Mexico. Many of the old school cattle ranchers were retiring or moving to ranch in areas that were literally greener and less challenging to ranch. During this period I learned a great deal about what it takes run a cattle ranch in the high desert, and eventually we were able to create some long term protections for the land surrounding the Field by partnering with the State of New Mexico and a third generation ranching family to purchase a conservation easement on their land that would ensure they could ranch for at least another generation, and that a major piece of land just south of the Field would be protected from development in perpetuity.
From where I live in Manhattan, it takes a fair amount of time to arrive at The Lightning Field, and this became, for me, a part of the process of shifting from NYC tempo to something altogether different. There were no direct flights to Albuquerque so I usually switched in Atlanta. From Albuquerque, I would arrive, stay overnight, and depart the following day by car. Getting to the Dia office in Quemado was a few hours’ drive, and from there another hour to get out to the cabin in the truck with Robert, the main caretaker. Each leg of the trip had a different texture and vibe, ending (or beginning?) in the austerity of the high desert and its unexpectedness.
SE: Why were you continually drawn back to The Lightning Field, and when did you know that you wanted to write about it?
LR: My first visit to the Field changed the way I experienced the world around me. I loved being there, recalibrating the relationships between sky, earth, poles, landscape, weather, and all of the ideas and thoughts this process evokes for me. Of course, I was lucky that some of my trips were necessary for my work at Dia.
I began to think seriously about writing about my experiences in graduate school. I tried to write some straight-up art history, and in the process located some compelling coincidences of history. I then took a class with Wayne Koestenbaum, and as we wrote homages, or parallel texts, to some of the works of literature we were reading, I began to wonder what writing something similar in relationship to The Lightning Field would look like. It seemed like the coincidences and my experiences out there could combine in compelling ways.
SE: The Lightning Field has been identified as a work of Land Art, an artistic movement based in interacting with the landscape, and of which perhaps Spiral Jetty is the best known example. Could you tell us a little about this movement and how The Lightning Field fits in?
LR: There were a number of artists who came to prominence in the 60s and 70s who decided to leave the confines of big cities to experiment in the landscape of the Western United States. Among them, Donald Judd went to Marfa, Texas where he created a complex of architectural and art installations. Michael Heizer made drawings with his motorcycle on dry lake beds, and started a monumental project in Nevada called “City”. Nancy Holt created her miraculous “Sun Tunnels” in Utah’s desert. And Robert Smithson envisioned and built “Spiral Jetty” in the Great Salt Lake. De Maria had been making artworks in the desert for some time, including his Mile Long Drawing from 1968, before searching for the location for The Lightning Field.
SE: In the book you talk about the poles being “a device for seeing something larger, infinite.” This comes in the context of a discussion of certain irrational, or maybe disorderly, systems that The Lightning Field made visible to you. For your text, did you want to mimic this effect at all, in terms of making your writings a gateway toward the perception of things adjacent to the text?
LR: Yes, I wanted to do this both literally and lyrically. In fact, it happens formally with some of the line break choices. If you look at some pages (like 14, or 42, or 82) and turn the book on its left side, the lines of text mimic the poles in the desert. Sometimes the lines appear in an almost-pattern like the work does when meandering off the orthogonal within the grid of poles. And of course, there is a lot that is left out, not recorded, omitted, and left to another imagination.
SE: In a discussion of memory and your engaging idea of “the curve of memory,” you remark that “There is great pleasure in looking at the infinitesimally / small aspects of an experience / as well as the infinitesimally large.” I think I have some idea of what the infinitesimally small aspects of an experience might be, but I wonderful if you could elaborate on the idea of the “infinitesimally large” and how they might relate to your experiences at The Lightning Field.
LR: Infinitesimally large means to me connection to the cosmos, to the expanding universe, to really, really big things that are difficult to comprehend in our day to day frame of reference. Maybe it is because I have just finished Cixin Liu’s Three Body trilogy, these things include the unknown space of black holes, and space in more or fewer than 3 dimensions. Being at the Field decidedly connected my thoughts to the heavens and where this particular artwork sits on the surface of the Earth, and its relationship to the universe.
SE: Much of At the Lightning Field consists of beautiful poetic renditions of your phenomenological experiences of The Lightning Field. Did recounting these memories as poetry revise your experience of them? Did they lead to certain discoveries?
LR: Recounting them certainly changed them. Particularly as I left things out, inadvertently or intentionally, and as I edited the text over time. I realize now that there emerged very specific rhythms that I kept returning to in the text, as well as my desire to make connections that felt important to me, like to calculus, chaos theory. But I also wanted to make an invitation to anyone reading it to make their own associations. My discoveries, and the coincidences of history that drove me to write about The Lightning Field are really just a small gesture or homage to a work of art that has changed the ways in which I experience the world.