by Courtney R. Thompson
“The view blurs out rather than sharpens.”
Originally published in Artforum in April 1977, this statement is nestled in Nancy Holt’s diaristic account of the impetus, creation, and labor of her iconic land art project, Sun Tunnels (1973-76), located in the Great Basin Desert, Utah. Originating out of a late 1960s discourse associated with Earthworks, or art that incorporates land as medium, Holt described a desire to create a site of orientation through a mediation of material and the phenomena between body, object, and landscape. What is remarkable about returning to her account of Sun Tunnels is that it contains nearly all the elements of the current exhibition on display at the Graham Foundation, not only in its conceptualization, but in the “memory traces”–filmic materials, snippets of poetry, and maps. These revive the project’s remoteness within the domestic setting of Madlener House, the current and inaugural site of the exhibition’s iteration. Like the careful siting of Holt’s sculptural intermediaries within a landscape or cityscape, this retrospective aims to focus a career through a specific view. It is the immediacy of the mediation that constructs the parameters for Holt’s visual poetics of space, guiding the viewer to consider the potential for the phenomenology of place within the artist’s various media.
Nancy Holt, Sun Tunnels, 1973-76, concrete, steel, earth. Great Basin Desert, Utah. Image courtesy of the artist and the Graham Foundation.
“Sightlines” is ambitious in its range, representing multiple ways of constructing as well as instructing perception and the ability to consider one’s space in the world. On the main floor of the exhibition Holt’s concrete poems are displayed in a vitrine alongside a script, headphones with audio, and documents including a photograph of several portable cassette players laid out on a table. To experience her audio tour in works such as Tour of the John Weber Gallery (1972), and Stone Ruin Tour (1967), the viewer is aware of Holt’s multiple ways of executing the space of the artwork, from text, to voice, to documentary images.
In another room a Bolex camera sits under glass while reprinted photographs line the walls showcasing the sites of Holt’s land works such as Hydra’s Head (1974), located along the Niagara River in Lewiston, New York, and the previously mentioned Sun Tunnels. This room is perhaps the most indicative of the issues surrounding the archiving of land art works. Is it document or is it art? More specifically, when was it considered document and/or art? One could easily posit the switch of materials from the horizontal archive of the vitrine to the vertical authority of gallery wall, but the process and infrastructure of labor in her works complicates a supposedly easily discernible criterion. It is to Alena J. Williams credit as curator that this blur sharpens the recognition of the specificity of Holt’s eye in her documentations.
Nancy Holt shooting the film Sun Tunnels, 1978, The Papers of Nancy Holt, Galisteo, New Mexico. Photo Lee Deffebach.
After ascending the stairs to the second floor, the viewer meets a darkened hall screening projections of Holt’s film work, including Mono Lake (1968/2009), and Swamp (1971). Swamp, a collaborative 16 mm film shot in the Meadowlands of New Jersey with husband Robert Smithson, accentuates the disconnection between Smithson’s verbal instructions to navigate a small area of the swamp and Holt’s negotiation of the commands through her limited view, conditioned by the lens of her Bolex.
In a room off of the hall is another piece that illuminates Holt’s exploration of the immediacy of perception, Points of View (1974), a four channel video installation. Here participants that included Richard Serra, Lucy Lippard, Klaus Kertess, Carl Andre, Ruth Kligman, and Bruce Boice, describe the experience of confronting a monitor with a limited North, East, South, and West window view mediated by Holt’s familiar viewing apparatus: a circular tube. After listening to the recorded voices attempt to articulate the limits of their vision through Holt’s construction, one is struck by parameters of distancing. This ripple of observation from Holt’s eye, to the assessment of Holt’s eye, to the viewing of the piece itself through the sightlines of the exhibition, asserts that this return to land art holds generative keys for art history’s revisionist strategies to Earthworks, and the role of documentation in spatial practice.
-Courtney Thompson, Contributing ArtSlant Writer