Holt’s three-dimensional installations defy conventional exhibition
Published: Monday, February 6, 2012
Updated: Monday, February 6, 2012 07:02
Art has traditionally been thought of as a two-dimensional, individual experience; indeed the term "art" itself often evokes the image of a solitary viewer looking at a flat painting hanging on a flat wall. Artist Nancy Holt seeks to defy that perception by forcing her audience to engage in an entire landscape, extending art out of its standard, rectangular canvas into a living, three-dimensional environment. Unfortunately, this interactive aspect of her work is lost at her Tufts University exhibition. Because many of Holt's pieces are large-scale, outdoor installations assembled in remote locations, the gallery is forced to use photographs and videos of these projects to display them. Although these substitutes can still provoke interest among visitors, they are ultimately incapable of capturing the true visionary grandeur of some of Holt's more prominent productions.
Nancy Holt (J '60) began her career in the late sixties, just as the Land Art Movement was beginning. This evolutionary branch of art grew out of the escalating environmental movement in the United States. Land Art aimed to showcase the diversity of the American landscape by taking art out of the studio and integrating it into a natural, ecological setting.
In many of her compositions, Holt experiments with certain like light and time. In her 1973 "Holes of Light" exhibition, Holt positioned a wall with circular cutouts of different sizes arranged in a wavy line in the middle of a room. She placed a group of lights on either side, which she rotated on and off with a timer. As the beams from one side hit the central wall, they filtered through the cutouts, causing the holes to appear dark and the wall to appear light. On the other side, the opposite occurred, as the circles of light shining through the cutouts contrasted against the dark backdrop of the second wall.
Her 1968 "Over the Hill" consists of a series of sixteen chronologically ordered pictures of a woman climbing a sand dune. The figure becomes increasingly smaller in the sequence as she gets higher up the hill, finally vanishing over the top.
Yet the most significant theme of Holt's work is space. In one of her first ventures into the realm of Land Art, Holt situated eight "locators" on each of the cardinal points in an open field in Missoula, Mont. The locators were essentially telescope-like tubes, made of a hollow steel pipe welded perpendicularly onto another one staked in the ground. When spectators looked through the locator with only one eye open, their view of the landscape was limited to a circular area with a two-inch diameter. The installation called for observation through each of the eight locators in order to generate new perspectives of the same space.
One of Holt's most famous pieces, "Sun Tunnels," was erected in the Great Basin Desert in Utah. Holt brought in four massive concrete cylinders, eighteen feet long and nine feet in diameter. She arranged them in a very specific "T" cross position so that on the summer and winter solstice the sun would be perfectly encircled by the cylinders at sunrise and sunset. In the sides of the cylinder, Holt also drilled smaller holes that represented specific constellations, which, during the day, cast spots of light onto the dark interior of the tunnel.
While the photographs and videos taken of these sites are extensive and detailed, it is still impossible for anyone to experience the full effect of the art. Seeing snapshots of the Missoula Ranch Locators can't possibly encompass the entire atmosphere of the scenery. The two dimensional video of the Sun Tunnels offers no way to understand the true scale of the project. This is not the fault of the gallery but rather a fundamental flaw of Land Art itself. Ironically, the primary purpose of Land Art, to engage people with the space itself, is hard to achieve in the distant, secluded locations where it is normally established. Because the sites are so inaccessible to the public, pictures and documentaries must suffice instead. But, in a classic catch-22, this undermines one of the main intentions of the artwork.
Though the entire genre of Land Art suffers from this flaw, it does not detract from the overall sense of creativity and originality present in Holt's art. Through a diverse assortment of media, Holt is able to harness the essence of the wilderness and, if not fully, at least partially, convey that to audiences.