“The idea for Sun Tunnels became clear to me while I was in the desert watching the sun rising and setting, keeping the time of the earth. Sun Tunnels can exist only in that particular place – the work evolved out of its site. Words and photographs of the work are memory traces, not art. At best, they are inducements for people to go and see the actual work.”[i]
When Nancy Holt created the earthwork Sun Tunnels in the mid-1970s, she shared information on its creation through an essay, and in the last two sentences of her essay – the above quote – provided us with the artist’s clear articulation that the actual work, the tunnels in situ, is the only work of art. Yet a year after the essay’s publication, her film Sun Tunnels was released, a nonverbal, almost silent film that is part documentation of the work’s creation and its placement in Utah’s west desert, and part meditation on the quiet of the region, the expanse of space that invited her to realize one of the seminal works of Land art of the 1970s.
Holt’s modes of representation of her “actual work” were accepted forms of communication and creation. Today, we consider all she created as art, from the preliminary drawings, to a full-scale rendition on the site, to photographs, film and essay. And today, we find that visual communication upended through postmodern considerations of appropriation, easy access to digital reproductions of untold works of art, and mediation between an original work, Holt’s “actual work,” and contemporary interpretations of the past.
Contemporary artist Kelly O’Neill engages the viewer in these issues in his current show at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art. rend/eris a sparse body of work that asks big questions, starting with: “How close can one get to the tunnels without ever stepping outside?” His answer is presented visually: the A.I.R SPACE gallery includes five CG photographs, with one tunnel floating above a blurred landscape in the first four, and, in the fifth photograph, all tunnels joined, again floating above the assumed western desert landscape, barely discernable; a second space includes four rectangular pedestals, topped with alkaline dirt removed from Sun Tunnels, on which rest four 3D prints, each representing a tunnel. In other words, not close at all – we have entered into a gallery space where contemporary considerations of convergence and appropriation collide, where process and information seem at first glance to be light years from Holt’s ideas, yet find commonality through intellectual considerations.
O’Neill’s postmodern turn, upending ideas of place and materiality, asks us to put aside the original intent of Sun Tunnels and start over from the artistic perspectives and discourse of 2017. Holt’s tunnels are linked to O’Neill’s work through Holt’s statement: “The panoramic view of the landscape is too overwhelming to take in without visual reference points. The view blurs out rather than sharpens.”[ii] As we view O’Neill’s photographs of the extraordinarily crisp tunnels floating over the blurred-out landscape, we see mediation, not substitution.
Considerations of space are based on the surrounding environment — be it the gallery space or the work in situ in the natural world. Holt’s interest in spatial considerations was based on physicality and the viewers place in front of, and inside, the work of art. Sun Tunnels surrounds us in a way that no representation can; these multiple iterations of the earthwork lead us to define the space between viewer and object anew. Scale, another of Holt’s considerations – both of her work in the desert and the desert itself – is flattened in O’Neill’s work, as is space. Three-dimensionality is reduced to a two-dimensional world in the CG photographs. The 3D prints reintroduce volume and (assumed) mass, but in the post-modern sense of the work, they recall Vik Muniz’s 1997 work Brooklyn (Spiral Jetty after Smithson) from his Brooklyn, NY series. Muniz created a miniature rendition of the Spiral Jetty by placing dirt on a table top, then, before eradicating the piece, photographing the work. These conceptual levels of remove from the physical original are similar to O’Neill’s method, reflecting a mode of thinking going back to Plato (427-347 B.C.), the Greek philosopher who, in The Republic,posited that Idea reigns supreme above realization. For Plato, art was a poor means of communicating an idea, a blurred reality, just a copy.
A more modern philosopher, Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), wrote in 1936 that “in principle a work of art has always been reproducible,” yet “even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.”[iii] Presence is required at Sun Tunnels, created to mark the rising and setting of the sun on the summer and winter solstices. Holt considered the experience of being inside her tunnels, of seeing landscapes through the many voids she created, along with considerations of time: “The work becomes a human focal point, and in that respect it brings the vast landscape back to human proportion and makes the viewer the center of things.”[iv] Alternatively, O’Neill’s work is about the human’s focal point mediating experience instead through technology as contemporary forms of digital platforms “allow anyone to travel to the Sun Tunnels and experience them themselves…”[v] His digitally produced photographs and sculptural works are not Sun Tunnels, yet they are about the ideas of shared information that Holt began in the 1970s.
As we question the nature of art, terms such as appropriation, interpretation and homage come to mind. O’Neill’s work moves past appropriation, as it engages Sun Tunnels by transforming the original through spatial and material means. Yet concerns of authorship linger: Sun Tunnels is a copyright work of art. Is it the responsibility of the current artist (O’Neill) or gallery space (UMOCA) to provide more information on the original work he depicts, albeit in altered format? This is a theoretical question only, one that has different answers determined by one’s position in the art world.
The visceral experience of being with Sun Tunnels out of doors leaves a trace of memory that can’t be replicated through any means, least of all photographs. As we come full circle – from the Land artists who eschewed the gallery space and created out of doors to those artists’ works now inhabiting gallery spaces – we are in a meta situation of inhabited gallery spaces. O’Neill’s work, through its interpretation and blurring of the view of Sun Tunnels, should urge us to visit (or revisit) Holt’s work in person, to bridge the physical space between our bodies and the actual work.
REND/ER: Kelly O’Neill, A.I.R. Space, UMOCA, Salt Lake City, through June 3.
The author wishes to thank Matt Kruback, co-instructor of “Environments and the Space of Art” at Westminster College, along with their students, in discussions related broadly to Land art, and more specifically to notions of artistic intent.
[i] Holt, “Sun Tunnels,” Artforum (April 1977), 37.
[ii] Ibid, 35.
[iii] Walter Benjamin. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” accessed May 1, 2017, https://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/ge/benjamin.htm
[iv] Holt, 34.
[v] Kelly O’Neill, email message to author, April 30, 2017.
has taught art history at Westminster College since 2006, and has also taught at the University of Utah and Weber State University. Her extensive exploration of Spiral Jetty was published by The University of Utah Press and the Tanner Trust Fund in a book titled “The Spiral Jetty Encyclo: Exploring Robert Smithson’s Earthwork Through Time and Place” in 2017; it won the 15 Bytes Art Book Award in 2018.