"It was all like a fresh new vision of the world": A Q&A with Land Art Lost Legend Nancy Holt

Nancy Holt, Utah Butte, 1977
(Photo Ardele Lister )

Land Art history as written has often been a purely male affair, as if the 1960s' reinvention of art's relationship to nature owed only to the likes of Robert Smithson, Walter de Maria, and Richard Long. But Nancy Holt was also a key member of this group of artists — and in a rich body of photographs, sculptures, earthworks, and pieces of public art she has tirelessly investigated the place of people within the environment. Holt's 1976 "Sun Tunnels" — four large concrete tubes pierced with holes reproducing star constellations, built in the Great Basin Desert, Utah — is on the par with Smithson's "Spiral Jetty," yet it's only now that Holt's contribution to a period she rightly described as a "new paradigm" is getting the attention it deserves. A major retrospective curated by Alena J. Williams is currently touring the US, and her first UK solo show opens today at London's Haunch of Venison. Nancy Holt sat down with ARTINFO UK to talk about first visiting the American West, site-specificity — and the need to be practical.

Why did you decide to focus exclusively on photographs for this show?

They are very important to the development of my art. I did some of them in the 1960s, and it helped form my eye. When you look at a series like the graveyard series ("Western Graveyards," 1968) — I was very taken: we have all this vastness in the West, we have songs about "don’t fence me in," and yet, when people died, they wanted their little plot of ground, and they wanted it clearly delineated. That desire, in the vastness, for human scale and for a rootedness in the earth is a very strong element in my sculpture. I build works that encompass people and give them a sense of scale, and a sense of orientation in the landscape.

You did photographs before you did earthworks. Do you think it was photography that led you to the landscape?

Absolutely. Here, I did a [photographic] series called "Trail Markers" (1969) in Dartmoor [South Devon], on a moor, following the orange dots leading me on trail. You know that others have been there before, some feet have made that track. I did an early work of a woman ("Over the Hill," 1968), who happens to be Joan Jonas. I said: "I want you to walk up the sand hill and just disappear behind it." So I took those photographs, and I have another set, where she's coming down. Later on I did a film called "Pine Barrens," so I put my own footprints in the films. It's leaving that trace in the landscape, and also the sense of enclosure, having a refuge, or a place to peer from.

It works both ways: through photography, you started looking at the landscape and that led to some your most famous earthworks, but photography also intervened at a later stage, when you took pictures of the "Sun Tunnels," for example.

It sorts of built on one another. The photographs of my sculptures are art in themselves. I do all my own photography, and I spend a lot of time doing that. I'm always trying to catch the sun at just the right moment, and it often means having to be around for days. So I end up living around my sculpture sites. The photographs are my way of letting people know the works exist, because often they are in remote places. Sometimes they are in cities, but even then, you need to let people know if they ever are near that city, to go and look at the work.

Framing the gaze is a key strand in your practice. How and when did you first click with this idea? Was it with the "locators"?

The locators were the first sculptures I did like that: a sculpture to be looked through. I'm currently building a circle of locators at the university of Avignon, France. It's eight locators, on the eight points of the compass. They look at each other, it's self-referential, and they also look at whatever can be seen. What I like is that a couple of them are looking onto an ancient wall. When I did locators in New York in galleries, I had them looking out of windows, and frequently what you saw through them was a brick wall, the building across, or part of a window, or a flue, but often it was just a brick wall. So here, we are looking at this important old structure, so that's interesting to me.

Your "Sun Tunnels" are like huge locators.

Yes, it got big. It's framing the view on a larger scale. These ideas developed. I did "Rock Rings," (1977-78) which is a big stone masonry piece. There you have four layers of holes that you are looking through.

In an interview with James Meyer, you talked about visiting the West for the first time in 1968 with Michael Heizer and Robert Smithson, and of a moment when you felt completely overwhelmed by the nature, at one with the landscape.

It was more than a moment, it lasted quite a while! Something happened to me that was lasting, and it's hard to describe but it changed me essentially. I never saw the world again like I had previously. It was all like a fresh new vision of the world, an opening to reality. You can spend a lot of time resisting reality — and culture helps you resist it — and suddenly in a desert setting like that, the environment itself sets the stage for something else to happen.

Were the others, Heizer and Smithson, feeling the same thing or did you each have a very individual experience?

I think on some level, we were all having the same experience, and each of us brought to it different talents.

Has your understanding of "site specificity" changed over the decades?

"Site specific" to me means that you work with the given site, and your ideas for whatever you are doing will be affected by the site itself. From the very beginning until now, that's been the case. I don't see that changing. I worked in cities, I worked in university campuses, and deserts. When I go to the site, I always allow myself to absorb it, I don't have any preconceptions, and then certain ideas will come to me. Also, before I have the idea, I gather any pertinent facts: how big a site is it? Are there any parameters, pipes underneath that mean I have to dig in certain spots? Do I have to worry about some rules or regulations? I usually find all that out because I don't want to come up with an idea that I can't actually make.

Do you work the same way if you are in the middle of the desert or on the middle of a roundabout?

I would say there is a lot of similarity in how I would approach any site.

It's about being open?

Being open, and also … being practical.

There is trend in public art of resisting permanent artworks. But permanence is something you fully embrace.

I'm particularly interested in permanence — even in the 1970s, when some of my colleagues where building wood pieces. I would be invited to be in the same exhibitions, and I would put in concrete foundations, and I would build these things so strong that after the show they couldn't get rid of them! So I've got pieces everywhere. The other art is long gone, and mine is still there, they have to live with it! Why build something that's going to disappear? Although I also did do plenty of indoor installations that were just up for the time of the show.

The idea of something potentially lasting for eternity doesn't worry you.

I like giving it a shot to build something that would last forever. Why not, you know. Give it a shot!


For images from the exhibition, click on the slide show.

"Nancy Holt : Photoworks," June 8 - August 25, Haunch of Venison, London