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The Woman With The Sun In Her Head: Nancy Holt’s Mirrors Of Light
John Quin , December 11th, 2021 09:51

John Quin shines a light at the late Nancy Holt’s work currently on show in Berlin

Nancy Holt, Mirrors of Light, installation view, Sprüth Magers, Berlin, November 25, 2021–February 5, 2022. Photo: Ingo Kniest

We enter a white room with ten circular mirrors on one wall, each measuring twenty-four centimetres. They are equidistant and mounted in an upward diagonal line that starts about half way up the wall. A 650-watt quartz light opposite shines in the direction of the mirrors so that another sequence of circular reflections appears on the adjacent wall. These non-material projections of light are progressively more distanced from one another and take on a more ovoid shape as they move away from the highest actual mirror. This work is Mirrors of Light I (1973–74) by Nancy Holt: a minimalist piece made with severe economy and one that typifies the late artist’s interest in the nature of light and reality.

In the corridor leading to the installation is a sequence of black and white photographs, desert scenes; these encircle a sheet of paper with compass marks. This is a kind of prototype Holt called Preparatory Drawing of ‘Sun Tunnels’ (1975). Each image is what you would see if you were standing on her chosen site in emptiest Utah and found yourself staring out toward the north, northeast, east, and so on. You’re looking at scrubland, sand and rocks: an uninhabited wilderness. As the title suggests this work foregrounds Holt’s most famous piece, a landmark triumph of Land Art, namely Sun Tunnels (1973–6).

Sun Tunnels are four giant concrete tubes – around 5.5 metres long and 2.75 metres in diameter – that are sat in the Great Basin Desert of the Beehive State. Seen from on high, from a drone, they are spaced apart, but appear to be at right angles to one another in a X-shape. The thick concrete in each is indented with a series of holes, five to fifteen or so small portals. These take the forms of constellations: namely Draco, Columba, Capricorn, and Perseus. From the ground you might imagine the tunnels as part of an abandoned construction project: from above they look surreal, like mislaid hair-curlers sat in an expanse of nothingness.

On the ground the giant openings of each tube neatly frame sections of the desert and the mountains beyond, circular vistas of the stark landscape. Viewed as the sun sets the structures glint and smears of orange tint the grey concrete. Holt also made inkjet prints of sunlight penetrating the tunnels, a sequence of shadows and C-shapes of light, parabolas of darkness. Dapples of yellow appear in the shades as a result of the smaller ‘constellation’ pores. You sense there’s something very ancient going on here.

You’re thinking very old, as in 3,000 BC. It’s hard to look at Holt’s work without being reminded of early man’s architectural triumphs, the remnants of megalithic structures, standing stones, the trilithons, the lintels, the menhirs, and the sarcens, such as those that make up Malta’s Ħaġar Qim, France’s Carnac, or Scotland’s Callanish. We don’t truly know what Neolithic man was up to with those stunning artefacts but there’s long been the suspicion that they have something to do with sun worship, with the rise and fall of the day, the turn of the seasons, the solstices. Holt’s Utah work has an obvious mute power, a timeless work about time, not a million miles away from the wonders of England’s Stonehenge and Ireland’s Newgrange.

One of the ancillary works here in Berlin is from 1972 and provides more clues to Holt’s practice. A perfectly drawn circle on paper encloses the following text, a kind of Zen-like koan:

the world through a circle elements real and reflected concentrated, encompassed sky, earth, water joined together a hole through the earth, either way drawing in a glance and then a second look and more the world focuses and spins out again, seen

Holt was born in 1938 and came to prominence in the late 1960s in association with other artists of the time making Land Art. She married Robert Smithson of Spiral Jetty fame in 1963 but the mythos of his life and tragic death have arguably obscured Holt’s achievements. A re-evaluation of the period and Holt’s work is timely given the prescience of her concerns about the natural environment, her early recognition that our planet is at risk, that ecology should take centre stage as a matter of urgency. Her practice revolved around using natural forms and how we make sense of time and space, hence her playful thinking of paying attention to the summer solstice. There’s a benign hippy vibe at work here, of being at one with the cosmos.

Along with the likes of Smithson and Walter De Maria, there is an explicit rejection of commercialism in Holt’s work. This rebellion mirrored the political angst of the time, the despoliation of Vietnam, the corruption of Watergate: both events have a lot in common with today’s debacles such as the threat of military conflict in the Ukraine, or the mendacious hypocrisies of the current British government. Given such parallels perhaps it comes as no surprise to witness a renewed interest in Holt’s achievements.

Another contemporaneous, and highly influential, aspect of Holt’s practice is her collaborative approach. She used stonemasons, astrophysicists, surveyors, architects, engineers, and all sorts of academics to crystallise her ideas. In this she predated similar practices mimicked by many famous artists of today who combine art with science, people like Katie Paterson or Pierre Huyghe.

There’s the suspicion that Holt did not get anything like the same financial backing as her male peers. Some of her work is still unfinished, as with Sky Mound, a thirty metre high, fifty-seven-acre landfill site in New Jersey. Holt wanted it converted into a sculpture park. One of her ideas was for piping to sink into the ten million tons of garbage below and have the recovered methane used as a source of energy. Her early ideas are now bang up to date.

Nancy Holt died in 2014 at the age of 75. She outlived Robert Smithson by over forty years.

Nancy Holt’s Mirrors of Light is on at Sprüth Magers, Berlin until 5 February 2022