BY James Trainor in Profiles | 10 SEP 03
Featured in
Issue 77

A Place In The Sun

Revisiting Nancy Holt's monumental Earthwork

BY James Trainor in Profiles | 10 SEP 03

When artists such as Robert Smithson, Michael Heizer, Walter DeMaria and James Turrell went deep into the American desert and started digging trenches, rearranging rocks and excavating dormant volcanoes in the late 1960s and 1970s - what Kirk Varnedoe described as the romantic conflation of 'longhairs with hardhats' - it was hardly surprising that there was a self-conscious working-man machismo to it all.

With the opening of Dia's cavernous new art outpost in Beacon, many of these artists are finally getting their day in the sun. Awed critics such as the New York Times' Michael Kimmelman declared them to be American art's 'greatest generation' - Land artists as the GI Joes of postwar American art, storming the beachheads with picks, shovels, bulldozers and dynamite.

Fuelled by the imminent completion of Turrell's Roden Crater project, the recent re-emergence of Smithson's Spiral Jetty (1970) and the 30th anniversary of the artist's untimely death, this overdue revisionism threatens to overlook the fact that one of these wayward art cowboys is actually an art cowgirl: Nancy Holt, the wife of Smithson. It is now 30 years since Holt began work on Sun Tunnels (1973-6): four massive concrete pipes deposited in Utah's vast Great Salt Desert, aligned in pairs along the axis of the rising and setting sun on the summer and winter solstices. I found it puzzling that this austere Stonehenge for the Aquarian age got such short shrift when it came to the recent buzz surrounding Land art. So on a trip to visit Spiral Jetty I made a detour to pay homage to its somewhat neglected neighbour 50 miles to the west.

Unsure of its present status - had it crumbled into a picturesque ruin or been vandalized by irked cowpokes? - I was still hopeful for the neo-primitive kinaesthetic convergence or mystical rush of sublimity promised by the photograph. Just as Spiral Jetty was experienced through a few images made before its Atlantis-like disappearance in 1971, Sun Tunnels seem to be trapped in 1976, the year Holt made her own photo aimed down the silhouetted pipes, straight into the radiant aureole of the setting summer sun. Like the contemporaneous NASA footage of Moon mission lift-offs, it was an instantly iconic image, offering an millennial sublime through the framing device of new technology. It is primarily via this single photograph - which made the cover of Artforum in April 1977 and later the dust jacket of Lucy Lippard's Overlay: Contemporary Art and the Art of Prehistory (1983) - and not through arduous pilgrimage that the work came to be absorbed into the common culture.

But of course inaccessible art is defined by its resistance to being fully apprehended. Holt touched on this in her 1977 Artforum essay, writing that the photograph served as a 'memory trace', a surrogate for a site that in reality would be more thought about than visited - analogous to the way 19th-century Americans first glimpsed and came to 'possess' an alien terrain via photographs made on scientific and military expeditions.

In both cases it was the perception of remoteness, partly mythic and partly real, which heightened the aura of the photographic document back on the East Coast, perpetuating a pictorial conception of the West as boundless, empty and ahistorical. However, Holt also thought of the photograph as 'an enticement', a dare to come west and find it, not unlike the 'Buried Poems' she cached in various parts of the desert in 1969 for friends such as Heizer, to whom she gave a map with treasure hunt instructions.

Driving down a series of dirt tracks while checking vague directions cribbed from an old book on Earthworks, we passed through desiccated alkali flats forming the bed of a long-vanished prehistoric sea, where sunlight and heat haunt the landscape and mirages are frequent. Sun Tunnels sits at the bottom of this optically unreliable post-deluvian expanse and from a mile or more away seems impossibly small - we at first mistook it for a herd of cattle. Up close, however, the gaunt tunnels are monumental, anchoring a windswept plain dotted with sagebrush and clusters of 'locoweed', a harmless-looking shrub that, if ingested, can cause hallucinations, blindness and death - all of which sounded a bit like the terminal stages of Kantian sublime. But coming, as we had, in spring, nothing much was aligning with anything even remotely cosmic, and with rain clouds approaching even the glare of the midday sun was threatening to abandon us. It didn't matter, though. Taking refuge within the shelter of the tunnels, we were happy to find something other than the revelation of celestial symmetries. After hours of driving through indifferent vastnesses, the tunnels were an oasis of focus as welcome as a long, cool drink. Raw, and more industrial-looking than I had expected, they fix the drifting gaze in a place where it threatens to be swallowed up by unquantifiable space. It is this scopically framed point of view - analogous to the childhood urge to fashion a telescope out of a rolled-up newspaper - that had me wondering if Holt knew about the way Easterners in the Romantic era once journeyed into the countryside in pursuit of the Picturesque, armed with 'Claude Lorrain glasses': tubular spyglasses with smoky, interchangeable coloured gels - blue for ersatz melancholic nocturnes, amber for instantly rapturous dusks - that transformed looking into an artistic act that projected the idea of 'landscape' outward.

Even when confronted with the hulks of the tunnels, the references are optical to the point of being photographic. The holes bored through the thick walls and patterned on various celestial constellations create something like a concrete pinhole camera or planetarium: the dark interiors become real-time filmic spaces where points of light slide imperceptibly around the inner surface as the sun travels from horizon to horizon. Sped up with time-lapse photography in Holt's film Sun Tunnels (1978), the swirling constellations generate what she called 'an inversion of the sky [...] day is turned into night [and] stars are cast down to earth, spots of warmth in cool tunnels'.

In recent years different types of pilgrims, seekers and sundry vagabonds have come to fixate on the Sun Tunnels. A quick Google search finds a few amateur astronomers dragging their telescopes and girlfriends to the site come 21 June and posting their photos online. A sound artist named Scott Smallwood stumbled over the tunnels in 2001 while making field recordings in the area, placing contact mics against the cool concrete to register the drones and hollow inhalations produced by winds gusting over their surfaces. The site was also unofficially adopted by a group calling itself SynOrgy, a ragtag splinter group of Burning Man wannabes who for a few years gathered annually to indulge in a bit of neo-druidical paganism, nudism and old-fashioned freaking out before Holt - who now lives and works in New Mexico - asked them kindly to find another place to play. It is even rumoured that an elusive hermit named 'Russell' lives in the vicinity in a mud hut.

Yet for all its middle-of-nowhere-ness, Sun Tunnels is the locus of a heavy swath of real estate. Not 60 miles away, for example, lies the epicentre of 'Manifest Destiny', a forlorn plateau where the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific railways met in 1869, completing the world's first transcontinental railway. Five miles from there is the secluded Thiokol Propulsion plant, where ICBMs were churned out during the Cold War, as well as the booster rockets that caused the space shuttle Challenger explosion in 1986; 40 miles to the south-west is the airstrip where the B-29 Enola Gay took off in 1945 en route for Hiroshima; 50 miles south-east is Tooele Army Depot, rumoured to house the world's largest stockpile of biological and chemical weapons; 20 miles due south is the flattest place on Earth and one of the few locations on land where its curvature can be perceived. It was in this spot that the land speed record (622 mph by the Blue Flame) was clocked in 1970 (the year Spiral Jetty was built) and where Matthew Barney filmed the Gary Gilmore execution scene in Cremaster 2 (1999), a fantasia of sublimity and death that pivots on the overlaying of geological and human time initiated by Smithson. It is in this 'empty' and 'ahistorical' spot that Holt gave her tunnels a home.

Holt's film begins with a pan across a map of the United States. Part of her obsession with mapping was practical - doing anything to the landscape requires knowing its topography and being able to communicate your intentions to the workers on the job. But it was also, like photography, another dispassionately precise and quasi-scientific form of representation supporting the mythos of geographic remove, the gulf between where the art was imagined and where it actually was.

Despite the undeniable and not insignificant alterations made to the land by Smithson, Heizer et al., none of their more brawny Earthworks has ever been officially acknowledged on US government topographical maps. Ironically, the only art object granted such actuality is Sun Tunnels, notated on a rarely requested map in dry cartographic terms as 'Astronomical Observation Tunnels'. Somewhere, back in the labyrinthine bureaucracies of Washington DC, Sun Tunnels has an admirer.

James Trainor was US editor of frieze between 2004–07