Nancy Holt . . . from page 1
An internationally touring exhibition featuring Holt’s work from 1966 to 1980 will be on display at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts from October 19, 2012 - January 20, 2013. Whitney Tassie, the museum’s new Curator of Modern & Contemporary Art, states: “Nancy Holt is an important American artist who has produced ambitious projects, coupling elementary forms with conceptual ideas, all over the world for past four decades. As Utahns, we are lucky to have her most well-known work, Sun Tunnels, permanently situated in our backyard in the Great Basin Desert. This long-overdue retrospective will connect this iconic local artwork to the artist’s greater body of work that is integral to a global contemporary art discourse but largely unknown here in Utah.”
Salt Lake City is the final destination for an exhibition that could be considered more of a mid-career retrospective, as Holt has actively created art since the show’s 1980 end date. Curator Alena J. Williams has overseen the exhibition from its start in New York City to Germany, then back to the United States with stops in several cities. Williams is also the editor of the publication Nancy Holt: Sightlines (University of California Press, 2011), a richly illustrated book with essays by Williams and others, as well as Holt's own writings on her work. This book serves as a companion piece to the exhibition as well as a means to include and expand upon more recent works. Williams writes of her interest in Holt’s work through the artist’s “use of media - photography, film, audiotape, and video - which represented a crucial reframing of the way Land art and site-specific sculpture and installation works have traditionally been understood.” (Sightlines, 11.)
Williams presents an artistic narrative of Holt’s work, comprised of media from writing and concrete poetry to photography and video, from public and site-specific installations to earthworks. The exhibition is an excellent opportunity to see how Holt’s interest in vision and the perception of space and light come together. An early photographic work, Concrete Visions, |1| shot in 1967 at a New Jersey brick and concrete yard invites us to see through the holes in concrete blocks as the artist saw through them, and provides an early example of Holt’s framing devices through both materiality and perception. In 1972, Holt actively engaged with the landscape to create her work Views Through a Sand Dune in Narragansett Beach, Rhode Island.|2| Her intervention in the sand dune, placing a pipe within a chosen spot to give the viewer a specific vista from either side of the dune, continued her investigation of framing a view in the land.
Holt is one of the first artists in this country to use film and video as artistic mediums. She and her husband, the American artist Robert Smithson (1938-1973) collaborated on a videotape East Coast/West Coast (1969) and a film Swamp (1971), works that draw us into dialogues as they take place between the artists, the first shot inside a Soho loft, the other in the tall reeds of a New Jersey swamp. In 1975, Holt created the 16-mm film Pine Barrens,|3| and wrote of her intention in making a film based upon this region of southern New Jersey: “...the landscape, as a whole, was very absorbing. I felt compelled to bring a sense of that place to other places. I figured I’d do this by filming various aspects of the land without a single person in it. In this way the landscape is no longer a mere backdrop for human activity; it begins to assert is own presence.” (Nancy Holt: Sightlines, 248.)
During this time Holt was not only filming the landscape in New Jersey but also in Utah, where she was working on Sun Tunnels. Included in the UMFA exhibition are “Preparatory drawing of Sun Tunnels” 1975 |4|and the photograph “Holt shooting the film Sun Tunnels” 1976.|5| Both drawing and photograph provide visitors with a glimpse into the artist’s working process, as she devoted years to securing the site, planning the work, collaborating with other individuals and organizations, and finally realizing both earthwork and film (the photograph was taken by her friend, the late Utah artist Lee Deffebach).
While Utahns feel a kinship to Sun Tunnels due to its geographical proximity, this singular work graces the cover of more than one art book. Images of the earthwork were on display this past summer in another exhibition, Nancy Holt: Photoworks, at Haunch of Venison, London. Organized by Ben Tufnell, director of exhibitions and author of Land Art (Tate Publishing, 2006), his goal was to introduce Holt’s photography and photographic interests to an international audience: “A central concern of Nancy Holt’s work is vision; the phenomena of sight, how we look and how we become conscious of our looking. Addressing this concern, the camera becomes a tool, a kind of prosthetic eye that allows her not only to record, but - in a conceptual leap - to record the act of seeing and recording.” (Nancy Holt: Photoworks, 5.)
In the midst of exhibition openings and talks, Holt created a new site-specific installation this summer on the campus of the University of Avignon in France. Avignon Locators 1972-2012, is the latest of Holt’s Locator works: the first outdoor Locator work, Missoula Ranch Locators: Vision Encompassed, was realized in 1972 in Montana. The work in Avignon is situated on a corner of the campus near the city’s medieval wall.|6| The views through the eight steel locators are aligned astronomically in N, NW, W, SW, S, SE, E, NE directions. Looking outward through a Locator the environment is encircled, looking inward through a Locator the opposite Locator is in view; a sculpture not only to be looked at, but through. Fixed in its site in Avignon by the North Star, Avignon Locators orients us in space and engenders an appreciation of this unique historical place on the planet. Since at the site the horizon is hidden by trees and buildings, the east and west Locators of Avignon Locators are not in an alignment with the sun on the horizon on the equinoxes. However, near the time of the equinoxes every year, optimally on September 16 at 7:25 PM local time and March 25 at 6:36 PM (and less optimally at the same times for two days before and after these dates) the sun is seen setting through the west Locator, leading some observers to call this phenomenon “Avignon Locatorhenge.” |7-8|
This interest in our place on the planet, how we are situated to the moon and the stars around us, has fascinated Holt for most of her artistic career. The phenomenon of sight, and how we perceive what is in front of us, can be viewed through this artist’s intention as a pinpoint of light or as the broad swath of Utah’s western desert. The heavens above us expand our reach beyond what we can see, but, through Holt’s vision, and her visionary work, we can appreciate the view, no matter where it takes us.
Personal Essay: Land Art
Discovering Walter de Maria’s Lightning Field
Land Art has captured the imagination of both art enthusiasts and adventurers alike. While Utah houses two of the most famous land works, Spiral Jetty (1970) and Sun Tunnels (1976), the neighboring states of Nevada and New Mexico also contain notable treasures. As an art historian, I am continually fascinated by Land Art (also known as earthwork), and have made it my mission to personally visit as many sites as possible. Having crossed many notable spots off my list, New Mexico became the next destination on my western journey.
Artist Walter de Maria’s The Lightning Field is one of America’s most famous earthworks. During the spring and summer months, visitors from across the globe come to rural New Mexico to experience the isolate wonder. The Lightning Field is an installation located in West-central New Mexico. Completed in 1977, the work encompasses a 1 mile by 1 kilometer plot of land adorned with 400 stainless steel poles, measuring 20 feet in height. The land also houses a cabin with room for six. Although de Maria constructs the experience, the site invites visitors to ponder the raw landscape on their own terms.
After surveying desolate regions in nearby states, de Maria chose an area that is in many ways underwhelming. Save for a few cattle farms, the surrounding acres are dry and inhospitable. However, the vastness of the land combined with the adjacent mountains, allows for some of the region’s most spectacular lightning storms.
Similar to other art movements of the 1960’s, Land Art is deeply rooted in conceptualism, employing artistic medium as a conduit to natural ecosystems and spatial relationships. Art historian Rosalind Krauss famously referred to Land Art as “sculpture in the expanded field,” speaking for a new generation of artists whose work rejected the confines of institutionalism.
From Land Art one can easily draw comparisons to the mythology of the American West. The origins of the movement coincide with the centennial anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Homestead Act of 1862, wherein Westward settlers were allowed to keep land if they cultivated it for five years. For those pioneers of the nineteenth century, the land was often harsh and unforgiving-yet the hope of independence prevailed. In the twenty-first century, America still holds remnants of the expansive lands and rugged terrain of the Western pioneers. Like Utah, the history of New Mexico is a parable of such struggle and enthusiasm.
Walter De Maria, The Lightning Field, 1977. Long-term installation in Western New Mexico. Photo: John Cliett. Copyright Dia Art Foundation.
With my cousin Dylan, a fellow land art enthusiast, I set out for my journey to New Mexico on June 24, 2012. In order to visitThe Lightning Field, one has to book placement at the site a few months in advance through the Dia Art Foundation (as an institution synonymous with Land Art, Dia has been active for nearly three decades, and owns the rights to both The Lightning Field and Spiral Jetty). There is no direct route to The Lightning Field: visitors must first reach the nearest town of Quemado, New Mexico, and from there be taken to de Maria’s site. The trip from Salt Lake City to Quemado, a town with only a few stores and some abandoned buildings, took much longer than anticipated and by the time we arrived we were both exhausted. We dropped our car off at Dia’s building on the town’s desolate main street and a local resident, working for Dia, arrived to take us about an hour away to the secretive location of The Lightning Field. We were joined on the long and bumpy ride by a couple from Rhode Island and their niece from California. When we first reached our destination, we walked around in amazement. The bright sun radiated down, making it too hot to walk around, but illuminating the harsh vegetation. The silence of the landscape was immediately apparent. Poles were everywhere. I could not have imagined their scale from the pictures: they seemed much bigger here than I would have thought. Spread along an axis, perfectly aligned, they evoke a sense of universality.
Around 7:30 pm, the cool weather allowed me to venture out in the field on my own. By now the sun had set on the poles a bit. They appeared to glow, along with the surrounding vegetation, now a vibrant green. My intention was to walk all the way out to the end of one row. -- a task that proved harder than it appeared. About halfway down the row, I became distracted by an open knoll that looked as if it had been cleared. Remarkably free of the thick, dusty dirt that preceded it, for the next hour the knoll became my temporary haven. Taking in the vastness of the landscape was a spiritual experience. Staring out into the distance, I felt small in relation to my surroundings. As I tried to gauge the distance of the mountains, their haziness felt at once like a mirage. To me, the mountains became a metaphor of reality-composed from the subjective fibers of time, experience and memory.
As the night came to a close and I was preparing for bed, the others excitedly came in and told me there was lightning outside. Sure enough, we enjoyed about an hour’s worth of nature’s electric light show just when I thought the night was over. This lightning was unlike anything I’d ever seen. Appearing far off in the distance, divorced from thunder, the lightning lit up the night’s sky in remarkably frequent episodes. We could see shapes and lights in the horizon. “Perhaps stars or spaceships,” one of my fellow travelers said.
Indeed the experience forced us to question our preconceptions and confront the present. Visiting The Lightning Field shows how contingent one’s identity is to context. Perhaps not everyone has a transcendental experience when confronted with isolation. Yet it is the landscape-and the all encircling compass of vastness and nothingness-that offers a conduit to personal enlightenment.