Imaginary Lines From Out West

by Claudia Dias on March 28, 2010

WDM: …. but it is, that the real notion of an infinite space is perhaps one of the few thoughts that is worth thinking about more than once.*


In 1785 the US Congress passed the Land Ordinance for the creation of a national grid, to organize and distribute without dispute the Northwest territory. For this purpose Jefferson together with Hugh Willamson developed an American version of Roman centriation, a purely mathematical system that ignored settlements according to natural topography. He established a grid of 6 x 6 miles (36 sqare miles) townships, which then got subdivided into 1 mile square parcels. The surveying started along the Ohio River and westwards. Actually, if you fly across the country, you can still see the road alignments following the national grid “that have etched a pattern resembling a giant piece of graph paper onto most of the landscape west of Ohio.”(Elizabeth Barlow Rogers)

Looking at Walter De Maria’s sculptures and landscape works, I always wondered where his facination with the abitrary but exact meassure of one mile or kilometer might have its orign.  And the Land Ordinance could be an indirect source, since this abitrary grid often creates paradoxical interactions between access and landscape especially in the US.


“… ’68, I went to Europe; I saw my steel work in the Dokumenta. I realized it was good; it was perfect but that I didn’t want to make any more steel works in galleries or museums. It was really clear. So in October I filled (Heiner) Friedrich’s gallery (in Munich) with dirt, made this minimal flat horizontal earth sculpture in this gallery, then went to the Sahara in December, January of ’68, ’69, did the mile-long line, lost the photos and all that story, but realized that I was absolutely on the right track.”*

Sometime the same year WDM found time to make a Land Drawing, called Mile Long Drawing in the Mojave Desert. A straight one mile long white chark line crossing over one of the vast dry salt-lake beds, which over a few days got naturally “dismantled” with constant winds dissolving the edges and the lines defining the dimensional shape of a “tool”.

In 1977 he installed the permanent installation The Lightning Field, a one mile by one kilometer grid comprising of 400 reflective stainless steel poles, ca. 20 feet high creating elegant lighting rods. It hovers like an imaginary 1 kilometer / mile long horizon-line between sky and ground. Only a few people took the oportunity to go and experience the installation, which is an overnight excursion to Western New Mexico and where taking photographs is prohibited.


However, efficiency looks different. Not far away another grid directed toward the sky and looking for the invisible is the Very Large Array, which consists of 27 radio antennas arranged in a Y shape. The array is divided into three radii 120 degrees apart which define the size of a circle. In this case efficiency determines the layout. The idea is to take advantage of combining the information of all antennas and calculating the missing parts instead of covering a giant circular area with reflective parabolic dishes. It looks as nature is rather organized for circular then rectangular performances.

“The line in the invisible drawing is like the mirage line of a heat wave in the desert floor, I mean it’s something that’s there and it’s not there, and the idea of a yard square piece of paper is an idea, a close approximation of the whole field of vision in a desert. But partially I think it was just instinct, just saying that aesthetically we can’t do enough here in the city under this set of rituals and that the whole rules of the game have to be changed and that, if I go out and do this mile long piece, it’s going to be a more powerful experience than just experiencing these few perfect sculptures in the gallery.”*

In 1979 WDM returns to the city and installs the Broken Kilometer in the New York West Broadway space of the Dia Art Foundation, his answer of bringing this country’s vast landscape into the cramped place of the city. He displays a Kilometer not as a distance, but as a Quantity showing 500 perfectly equal 2 meter long modules lined up in 5 rows made of solid brass, reflective, in his words “in the color of light”*.

*Oral history interview with Walter De Maria, 1972 Oct. 4, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Image reference: VLA by NRAO; Walter De Maria; Walter De Maria, Mile Long Drawing, 1968; Google Satellite Image of Mojave Desert; Walter De Maria, Mile Long Drawing, 1968; The Whirlpool Galaxy M51, courtesy of NRAO/AUI and Juan M. Uson, NRAO; The Lightning Field, courtesy of Dia Art Foundation; VLA by NRAO; The Lighting Field  courtesy of Dia Art Foundation.

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