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Nancy Holt: Sightlines

by Alena J. Williams, Editor
University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 2011
296 pp. Trade, $52.95
ISBN: 978-0-520-26856-2.

Reviewed by Jonathan Zilberg
Department of Transtechnology
University of Plymouth

Sightlines is an apt title for this retrospective catalog that accompanied a traveling exhibition by the same name.  It documents Holt’s site-specific public art in which she has made centers in landscape that have brought the sky down to the earth and connected outer and inner worlds.  Holt is an Eve-like figure.  Not only is she an iconic figure in the history of Land Art, and Public Art, but also in today’s context, her life and work has a special relevance to developments in the art-sci community as a role model for forging creative and mutually productive interactions across the disciplines.  Locating and building her works requires a rigorous collaboration with astrophysicists and astronomers, stonemasons and gardeners, engineers and many other professionals depending on the needs of each site-specific project.  Exacting, meticulous, she unites art and science.  Indeed, her education as a biologist has served her well.  At the end of the day, Holt reminds us of the enduring value of a rounded education in the humanities, arts, and sciences, as to the inner call we have to containment and the whole.

Produced to accompany an exhibition of Holt’s films, videos, archives, photographs and other materials dating between 1960 and 1980, the book includes essays by Pamela Lee, Lucy R. Lippard, Ines Schaber and Mathew Coolidge, an interview of Holt by James Meyer and a chronology of the artist’s life and world by Julia Alderson.  Lavishly illustrated, it also includes select reprinted articles previously published by Nancy Holt about specific works, namely; Wild Spot, Vision, Up and Under, Starfire, Pipeline, Sun Tunnels,  Stone Enclosures: Rock Rings, Pine Barrens, Niagra, Ventilation Series, Masschusetts, Hydra’s Head, Dreamscape: Crossings and Dark Star Park.  While the essays by the above-mentioned authors respectively, “Art as a Social System: Nancy Holt and the Second-Order Observer”, “The Claims She Stakes: A Reading of Nancy Holt’s Archive,” “Concrete Traces: Nancy Holt’s Speaking Media” and “Sky Mound: Monuments of Perpetual Possibility” are wonderfully intimate and memorable engagements with her work, it is Holt’s writing themselves that hold the center.  For those working in the fields of art-sci today who may have been unaware of Holt’s work with landscapes and the sky, on systems and stars, her subtle engagements of sun and moon, the soul and the horizon, astronomical time and cycle, the spiritual clarity of her purpose as manifested in her art will inspire and renew.

Holt studied biology at Tufts (1959-1963).  She recalls how earnest she had been about bridging art and science, attending art-sci shows and events at MIT.  In the decades that followed she employed a precision in terms of astronomical alignments in her work that fused a concern for the empirical with the subjective.  As she concludes, “Science did end up eventually serving me as an artist”.  For Holt, as Lippard recalls Dean Rollin Richmond at the opening of Solar Rotary at the University of Florida in 1995, “Art is science made clear.”

Always, Holt is true to her collaborators, deeply respectful of their skills, their art.  So we find them at the center, too, each acknowledged by name and if not so by a clear image of their nature and their work.  She exhibits a profound sensitivity for what they have given to the whole whether they be quarrier or stone mason, ditch diggers or the unnamed gardener who helped chose the perennials for the most private and perhaps telling of her work, Wild Spot.  Naturally, Robert Smithson’s partnership and presence endures.  It is important to note that for her the photographs of the work are not art, their purpose is simply to record the process and the result and to entice one to visit the sites.  And while she is surely right in some sense that the photographs of her work are not art, cannot serve as substitutes for the experience, some of them may be and to some provisional extent may serve as such.  Consider those iconic images of Stone Enclosure and Sun Tunnels.  With the texts in mind, if you let these words and images do their substitutional magic, detach, you might find yourself suspended in time, almost there.  Many a reader will contemplate a future visit, time to experience the moon, the sun and the stars traversing the tunnels inside out, a time to connect your soul to the universe – through her work.

These enduring images and words bring to life the artist’s intent, the moodiness of the Bellingham enclosure, the native logic of Hydra’s head, eyes of the sky, the utter simplicity that speaks memory of her mother and her sense of a wild uncontrollable freedom born in the sting of rejection at Wellesley College.  Wild Spot.  From the contained simplicity of that particular work, to the atmospheric mystery and astral fixing of True North in the stone circles at Bellingham, from the acute astronomical calculations and exacting work with scientists and engineers required, they each perform a similar function, to fuse time, to connect the inner and the outer world.  Yet almost always, it seems, Nancy Holt chooses a quiet spot, off center, avoiding the monolithic, except for on her land in Utah, her penultimate center.

Philosophy and poetry, Gaston Bachelard, in particular, random things she has read along the way by chance, have deeply inspired her or rather helped her to understand her sense of profound inner calm and the creative process.  As Lippard eloquently explains it: “Roundness is Holt’s form . . . . merging historical time with the cyclical time of the sun”, her quintessential combination - a poetry of time and light (p. 67).  She fuses time, universal and historical, in the roundness of being.  That is her muse.  In short, to close the circle, for those engaged in the current ferment on the convergence of art and science, here is a book that should be required reading as instructional of a long established successful integration, but above all towards visiting and experiencing the sites themselves so as to reflect and connect. To end then by paraphrasing Lucy Lippard on the function of Sun Tunnels, the most well known of Holt’s works, they are not monuments, they are not memorials, they are places to contemplate and plan.

Last Updated 7 November 2013

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