Nancy Holt is one of the leading artists of her generation and a pioneer in conceptual, site-specific art and film and video work. She is one of a group of important international artists who initiated the Land art movement in the late 1960s. The Contemporary Art Gallery brings together a selection of photographs from 1967 onwards, many seen for the first time in public, alongside pivotal film works.
Holt deals with themes centring on memory, perception, time and space. She uses the natural environment as both medium and subject with a focus on the cyclical time of the universe, the daily axial rotation of our planet Earth and its annual orbit around the sun. Photography has always played a central role within her work, both as a way of engaging with the landscape and as a way of documenting site-specific projects.
This exhibition includes major photographic pieces, including early work such as Concrete Visions (1967), an important project made on Dartmoor while visiting the UK with the artist Robert Smithson over forty years ago, Trail Markers (1969); a series of photographs entitled Light and Shadow Photo-Drawings (1978); and photographs by Holt of her most famous work, Sun Tunnels, 1973 - 76 among others. Vancouver itself could not be a more appropriate location for this exhibition, the city renowned for its setting within magnificent natural surroundings, the ongoing photographic legacies in picturing within international visual arts practice, and also being the site for the seminal Glue Pour (1970) by Robert Smithson, Holt's late husband.
Heizer, Richard Long, Walter de Maria and Robert Smithson made revolutionary steps when they began to work outside of the studio or gallery and instead physically made work in the landscape. The movement was, in part, a rejection of the materialistic modern world and an exploration of our human relationship with the continuously shifting forces of nature. For some of the artists, ecological issues and concerns about the destruction of natural environments are relevant factors. Nancy Holt was a key member of this group of artists.Holt's career began by composing concrete poetry, text based pieces and photographs of various New Jersey sites on trips with Smithson from 1966 to 1969. California Sun Signs (1972) consists of bright colour photographs, capturing the humor and spontaneity of the artist gaze, through a linguistic play on sunshine and rays of light. Each sign contains some variation of the word sun, but the immediate surroundings in which the signs are found introduce entirely different meanings. Holt's interest with natural and artificial light are demonstrated in this work; in certain images traces of sunlight reflect off the camera's lens or off the slick surface of the signs themselves.This involvement with photography and camera optics is what is thought to have influenced some of her key earthworks. Holt creates pieces which focus and frame a carefully selected specific view that also often parallel and navigate positions of the sun, moon, earth and stars. Best known for her large-scale environmental sculptural works, perhaps her most famous being Sun Tunnels(1976) located in Northern Utah in The Great Basin Desert; people can interact with these pieces and become more aware of the space in which they sit.
Seen in her 1978 film presented off-site at The Cinematheque, four large concrete tunnels, 18ft long and 9ft in diameter, are aligned in pairs along an axis of the rising and setting sun on a summer or winter solstice, the pipes acting as viewing devices for the sky, the surrounding landscape and each other. Cut through the wall in the upper half of each tunnel are holes, which form the constellations of Draco, Perseus, Columba and Capricorn, their diameters differing in relation to the magnitude of the stars to which they correspond. The holes cast spots of daylight in the dark interiors of the tunnels and are continuously changing form, the shapes and positions of the cast light differing at each hour, day and season, relative to the positioning of the sun and moon in the sky.
The viewer's perception of space and scale is questioned as the tunnels sit amongst an unquantifiable panoramic landscape. When looked through the tunnels allow parts of the landscape to become framed and come into focus. Acting as visual reference points, they extend the viewer visually into the landscape, opening up the perceived space. When stood inside of the tunnels, the work becomes enclosed and a frame is given to the landscape. Holt's primary aesthetics and social interests converge in such works as public observatories, reflecting her determination to connect people with the planet earth, to bring 'the sky down to earth' and the vast spaces such as the desert 'back down to human scale.