Nancy Holt passed this February, at the age of seventy-five. The artist’s work, Sun Tunnels (1973-1976) is a lasting marker of a career that sought to connect people with the systems of the earth, with the ways that time and space function around us. Residing outdoors in the middle of northwestern Utah rangeland, the site of Sun Tunnels allows one to join those systems, in order to see the art and oneself as part of those systems. The artist has departed, but the mechanisms she created remain.
Even with the intervention of technology, the landscape is a system that overwhelms. Zooming on Sun Tunnels with Google Maps, one first sees the roads disappear, the salt flats and scrub land change color, the mountains come into focus and then out of focus, and then finally, only at the closest levels of zoom, the actual tunnels appear in the satellite photographs. Driving to the site the experience is similar—after miles on gravel road, popping over various ridges, finally the work becomes visible. At a distance, one cannot make out whether they are cattle, abandoned shacks, or simply a mirage in the heat rising off the earth, but they slowly present themselves as intentional structures, four large concrete tubes each weighing twenty-two tons, almost large enough to drive inside.
As Holt wrote in a 1977 piece for Art Forum, “The panoramic view of the landscape is too overwhelming to take in without visual reference points. The view blurs out rather than sharpens. Through the tunnels, parts of the landscape are framed and come into focus.” The tunnels are positioned in an x-shape, so that the sun shines directly down their length on the summer and winter solstices. Holes in the tunnel are laid out like the stars of the constellations Perseus, Capricorn, Columba, and Draco, each another window for light to enter the field of view that one obtains while inside the tunnels. In what otherwise might be the ‘middle of nowhere’, the overwhelming systems come into focus, through Holt’s work.
This is an outstanding feature of all of Holt’s work, but it is especially apparent in Sun Tunnels. In an interview with Sculpture in October 2013 she said, “the work is just an element within a much vaster system in which the sun rises and sets on the solstices, and one senses the earth’s rotation. […] the tunnels are indicators of much vaster systems, just like the system pieces are part of a whole, part of a huge, manmade system through which we channel elements.” The endorheic basin of Northwest Utah—into which water flows but never leaves, evaporating into the arid atmosphere to leave behind salt flats and a great lake that is the mere footprint of the statewide Pleistocene lake that once submerged the site—is a place of many systematic crossroads. Just north of Sun Tunnels is the path of the first Transcontinental Railroad, around one hundred miles west from Promontory Point, where the golden spike was driven to unite the continent. To the south is I-80, the second-longest interstate highway in the United States. This portion around the south end of the Great Salt Lake mirrors the original route of the Lincoln Highway, the very first intercontinental highway. While standing at Sun Tunnels, one can clearly spot white contrails left in the sky overhead, the route-markers of the technological transportation system that has surpassed these previous ones. We already interact with the history of these systems on a daily basis, but Holt’s legacy is that here, in this place, in the presence of this lasting trace upon the environment, we might look at them with the same focus as the stars and sun, these smaller points of illumination we are constantly in the process of lighting.
Sun Tunnels, nearly forty years old, remains much as it was originally placed on the landscape. A bit scarred and cracked, though not nearly as much as the earth beneath it, Holt’s work is a marker on place and time. It is not a historical marker, taking us back to a particular time when the Holt lived and worked in this space. It creates the possibility of an atemporal space. Arriving there today, one exists in continuum with a changing world, where people and the world do not remain, but as they pass through this particular place, they are capable of seeing their place in the system. The roads around it will evolve, decay, and be rebuilt. But the point in space remains, long after Holt has left us. There, in the middle of nowhere, a person suddenly is placed in the middle everywhere. Around this particular omphalos, the invented axis point that is any piece of art, the rest of the universe will temporarily spin.