Do you find meandering from room to room in a museum, silently staring at art a bit boring? Are the immaculate white walls and velvet ropes of galleries too stuffy for you? If you’re a thrill-seeking adventurous type, perhaps you should add visiting the following artworks to your bucket list—connecting with art in the great outdoors, in remote and dangerous places.
The art listed here is completely accessible and legal to visit, but often requires preparation and reservations to ensure admittance. The journey to see these incredible pieces is just as much a part of the experience as the artwork is itself, after all!
The Nazca Lines - Sechura Desert, Peru
The Nazca Lines are a world-famous example of ancient geoglyph art. Geoglyphs are large designs or drawings created directly on the surface of the Earth. A hummingbird, a spider, a tree, and other clear, recognizable images of animals, as well as abstract shapes, dot the landscape of the Sechura Desert in Peru. Some of these geoglyphs extend over 1,200 feet in length and are dug very shallowly into the top layer of the Sechura Desert sand. Therefore, a bird’s eye view is required to achieve a proper view of the artwork.
The Nazca Lines are located 250 miles south of the Peruvian capital city of Lima—where you’ll certainly want to stop if you’re planning a trip to the country. A number of smaller towns closer to the Sechura Desert provide lodging and short, daily flights that offer the best possible view of the Nazca Lines. CNN recommends staying in the beachside town of Paracas, then heading to the nearby Pisco Airport, where you can catch one of these charter flights.
Nazca Lines flights cruise at low altitudes, are very sensitive to desert winds, and typically fit 10 to 12 people. The flights also last about 75 minutes, which is quite a bit of time to spend in close quarters. For those put off by this option, viewing towers are a viable alternative to flying. Though unable to provide the sweeping, panoramic views of the lines that charter flights offer, these towers are easily accessible from highways that run along the geoglyphs.
The Nazca Lines are one of the few notable attractions in this area of Peru, as the land is primarily composed of arid plateaus, hours from the nearest largest city, Lima. Peru’s capital is also home to the ancient Inca ruins of Machu Picchu, which draw much larger crowds than the Nazca Lines, so don’t expect to see many people when visiting the Sechura Desert.
While a visit to the Nazca Lines might burn through an entire day, they are absolutely worth seeing—their wonders may very well be fleeting. Climate change poses a major threat to the delicately created Nazca Lines, as they can be swept or washed away in an instant due to increasingly frequent wind or rain storms.
Underwater Sculptures: Cancún Underwater Museum, Cancún, Mexico
The ocean contains an abundance of natural beauty, with its many caves, coral reefs, and exotic fish. But what would the ocean look like if it contained man-made art beneath its surface?
The Cancún Underwater Museum in Cancún, Mexico (known in Spanish as “Museo Subacuático de Arte” or MUSA), transports visitors to a real-life Atlantis. At the Underwater Museum, two “galleries” feature a combined 500 sculptures. The Manchones gallery is the larger of the two, housing 473 sculptures located at depths of eight to ten meters, according to MUSA’s official website. The Punta Nizuc gallery features 33 sculptures at depths of two to four meters.
The sculptures of MUSA can be viewed in one of three ways: snorkeling, diving, or by glass-bottomed boat. Snorkeling tours offered by MUSA are the cheapest option and are less intense than a dive. Due to the area’s shallow depth, the only way to view the Punta Nizuc sculptures is via snorkeling. MUSA diving tours differ in price based on the number of dives, where the dive departs from (either Cancún or Isla Mujeres), and the possession of a diving certificate. For those who don’t want to get wet or aren’t confident swimmers, you’re still in luck, as the aforementioned glass bottom boat tours provide a stunning look at not only the Underwater Museum’s sculptures but also the native marine life within the Great Mayan Reef. Glass bottom boat tours are quick at 35 minutes and are “perfect to enjoy with the whole family”, as MUSA states on their website.
While the city of Cancún is by no means remote—it’s one of the world’s most popular spring break destinations—snorkeling or diving to access the Cancún Underwater Museum can be dangerous for those who are inexperienced or not certified. Equipment failure or sudden panic could happen underwater at any time. Plan accordingly, though, and you’re sure to experience the surreal sight of these stone artworks being reclaimed by the Caribbean Sea.
The Lightning Field: New Mexico
Walter De Maria’s 1977 land art piece The Lightning Field requires quite a bit of advance planning to reach. Once there, however, you’re in for a breathtaking view available from sunset to sunrise.
The Lightning Field, installed at an undisclosed site in western New Mexico, consists of 400 stainless-steel lightning rods spread across a field in a grid arrangement. The viewer is meant to walk through the field to take in the natural beauty of the surrounding area. If one is lucky, they might even catch a glimpse of lightning striking the rods—though being there during a storm is not guaranteed.
In order to view De Maria’s influential land art piece, viewers must make reservations to stay overnight at the on-site cabin. This can be done through the Dia Art Foundation, the organization that oversees The Lightning Field, as well as three other De Maria landworks. This year, The Lightning Field is accepting reservations for groups of up to six from May 1st, 2023 to October 31, 2023.
Once you have your reservation, you must make your way to Quemado, New Mexico—about three hours from Albuquerque—where the Dia office is located. From there, a staff member will drive your party to The Lightning Field site, which takes approximately 45 minutes.
The site is as remote as it gets, with no Wi-Fi or internet available and limited cell service. Additionally, the nearest hospitals are two hours away. Dia advises that visitors to The Lightning Field should “be prepared for a remote experience” and need to “carefully plan [their] communications, attire, and food supplies”. Due to the nature of the viewing conditions for The Lightning Field, children under five are not allowed to view this piece.
Varying temperatures, potentially rocky and muddy terrain, and limited first aid make this piece a risky visit for those who aren’t outdoorsy. The allure of The Lightning Field, however, is its in-person exclusivity. In accordance with Walter De Maria’s wishes, his artwork and the cabin are protected by copyright, and photos are not permitted. You have to see this art to believe it.
Sun Tunnels: Great Basin Desert, Utah
While not nearly as remote as some of the other desert-based artworks on this list, Nancy Holt’s 1973-1976 Sun Tunnels (also maintained by Dia Art Foundation) are still quite removed from civilization. These four concrete cylinders sit in a cross formation in the middle of northwestern Utah’s Great Basin Desert. You can make the 45-minute drive to them from Montello, Nevada, the closest location with food, fuel, and bathroom facilities available. Salt Lake City is also four hours away.
The cross pattern the tunnels are arranged in is purposeful, as the sunrise and sunset align with them on the summer and winter solstices. At 18 feet in length and nine feet in diameter, visitors can step inside the Sun Tunnels and look up to see that each one of the four tunnels has small holes carved in the top. Each portal aligns with the stars Draco, Perseus, Columba, or Capricorn, the four constellations that can be viewed from within the Sun Tunnels.
Nancy Holt was especially notable as one of a small cohort of female land artists, and according to the Utah Museum of Fine Arts (UMFA)—who also co-maintains Sun Tunnels in partnership with Dia Art Foundation, the Center for Land Use Interpretation, and the Holt/Smithson Foundation—her design “allows for an ever-changing play of light and shadow upon the surfaces of her work”. UMAF also provides viewers with a downloadable self-guide for background and history on Nancy Holt’s work as well as an experiential guide that aids the viewer’s physical experience of the art.
Stargazers and astronomers will be tempted to share the beauty before them over social media, but “phone reception may be unreliable”, says Dia. Desert travel tips apply here as well: bring your own food and water, and be prepared for “unpredictable weather or automobile occurrences”.
The Damned, the Possessed, and the Beloved: Vardø, Norway
Art located in the middle of nowhere isn’t always in the desert. The final piece showcased today takes us to the frigid Arctic in Vardø, Norway. Louise Bourgeois’s 2010 sculpture The Damned, the Possessed, and the Beloved is a steel chair lit eternally set ablaze by five flames, surrounded by seven large, oval-shaped mirrors that reflect the image of the chair back at the viewer. They can be seen as “both threatening and protective”, according to Ellisiv Brattfjord, Senior Communications Adviser at the National Museum in Norway.
The eerie, reflective work is part of a larger piece, a memorial dedicated to the 91 people killed during the Finnmark region’s witch trials in 1621. The Steilneset Memorial, which opened in 2011 in Vardø, was created by Bourgeois in collaboration with Swiss architect Peter Zumthor. The 400-foot-long building houses Bourgeois’s sculpture at its terminus, set within a smoked-glass box. Before viewing The Damned, the Possessed, and the Beloved, visitors can make their way through the memorial’s long Hall of Remembrance to read text written by Norwegian historian Liv Helene Willumsen about each of the 91 witch trial victims. Bourgeois, interestingly, “did not want any kind of explanatory text near her work”, as noted by the National Museum.
Looking out from the glass box that contains The Damned, the Possessed, and the Beloved, viewers can see the Barents Sea. In 1621, accused witches were thrown in those same freezing waters to see if they would float. If they did, they were declared a witch and subsequently executed. Much like many of Europe’s other witch trial victims, the 91 killed in the Vardø witch trials were mostly women. In other European countries, women accused of witchcraft were sometimes considered hysteric. Hysteria was a common theme in Bourgeois’ art, as shown in her piece Arch Of Hysteria (1993).
Vardø is located on the very northeastern tip of Norway, above the Arctic Circle. It is only accessible from the mainland by the Vardø Tunnel, ferry, or air. Vardø experiences extreme freezing temperatures in the winter as well as “polar night”. By contrast, summers are short, cloudy, and come with the “midnight sun”. Perhaps there is not a more appropriate, desolate place for a somber memorial that commemorates this dark chapter of Norwegian history, one that contains a connection to the widespread phenomenon of witch trials.
Visually, art can whisk viewers away to amazing places that are at once fantastical and based in reality. Art can also literally take you to places you’ve never even considered going before, extending outside the confines of traditional museum walls. Hard-to-reach art located on the very edges of our world pushes the boundaries of the possible and subverts expectations of what we think art “should” be. Have you been convinced to venture out to visit any of these art pieces?
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