Nancy Holt: Sun Tunnels
To get to Sun Tunnels, one drives down a series of remote gravel roads, crosses a dry gulch through which the railroad presumably travels, and past a ghost town. There are no street signs or markers. Miles must be counted on the odometer. The cellphone signal disappears about 30 miles prior, on the other side of the Utah state line, near Montello, Nevada, the closest inhabited town.
As one approaches, along the final two-mile stretch of washboard road, the tunnels should shimmer, like a mirage, in and out of view.1 This is an artist’s way of saying that objects in the distance may or may not be as they appear. On the day I was traveling, a caravan of trucks and an RV roared up behind me. (“The desert is trying to kill you,” a ranger once warned me.) I could tell by how fast they were moving that they were not out there searching for Land art. When the blobs in the landscape finally came into sharp focus, I was so relieved I screamed for joy.
Nancy Holt wanted Sun Tunnels to be accessible. Meaning: there are roads. Four concrete cylinders indistinguishable in color from the flat, open land that surrounds them sit on 40 acres the artist purchased in the middle of the Great Basin Desert. At first, the tunnels seem small, and maybe even a little puzzling. For this I pilgrimaged? But then one begins to move around, to adjust to the scale of the work in relation to the human form and realizes that, hey, as far as pipes go, these are actually pretty big. Some measurements: each tunnel is 18 feet long, 7 1/4 inches thick, weighs 22 tons, and is tall enough for anybody less than eight-foot-two to enter, which is also as the artist intended. “I really wanted to make tunnels. Tunnels that you could walk through and look through.”2
The tunnels are arranged in the form of a cross, or an X, facing each other or looking away, oriented east or west, north or south, depending. As with all of Holt’s works, perspective is vital. One can stand in the center of their arrangement, look through a single tunnel of choice, pivot, and then look out through a second tunnel, and so on; or walk along the work’s perimeter (68 1/2 feet x 53 feet) and look in one, through, and then out a second aligned, concentric tunnel (86 feet). Punctured with holes of varying sizes (7, 8, 9, and 10 inches) in the form of constellations—Draco, Perseus Columba, Capricorn—one can stand outside and look “into” the tunnel’s cutouts, through which sunlight falls, casting patterns. And vice-versa. The permutations are simple yet many. Upon alighting, I found myself quickly moving in, out, around, and through one tunnel to another, trying to take in all of the “views.”
Holt found the vastness of the desert overwhelming and created a sculpture to help us frame it. This is a form of empathy, even as it’s also an artist’s colonization of place. Indeed, the tunnels are both guides and havens, directing and protecting. A grand-scale version of Holt’s Locators, the tunnels are viewfinders, gently commanding us to pay attention—to the sun shifting over time; to the light spilling through the “star-holes,” spiraling around the tunnel’s interior, across my own body, changing shape, from pointed ellipses (mandorlas) to complete circles and back again; to the mountain ranges, pale violet and then black, muted or in high-relief. Has anyone seen how the desert grasses—green, brown, gold—appear pink at dusk?
The tunnels exist, and are meant to be experienced, in durational time. When clouds passed overhead, the mandorlas of light dimmed or disappeared altogether, leaving me with a feeling of loss. When sun once again triumphed over cloud (nature vs. nature) and the mandorlas reappeared, I felt something akin to elation. Within the tunnel’s embrace, I was spared from the elements. Their density ensures that the temperature inside is 15 to 20 degrees cooler. I felt grateful, on a hot July day, both to the universe and to the artist, for providing simple things. Like shade. And breeze.
During the solstices, the tunnels align with the rise and set of our biggest star on the horizon. Over the course of one solar day, four different couples visited. Each time I heard what sounded like a car approaching—there is a considerable echo in the tunnels—I peered through one of the star-holes to see who could possibly be coming down the road. Such is the effect of Holt’s work, as if intimate communions were being interrupted: between Earth and stars, light and shadow, self and nature, viewer and artist.
Spending time with the tunnels, we become “observers of our observations,” engaged in a dialectic of perceptual relativity.3 From the tunnel’s center, the viewer is extended outward, and thus the perimeter isn’t actually the perimeter, but all of earth and sky. We become conscious of our ways of seeing and being. Perspective and perception shifts—am I looking at the mountains or are the mountains looking at me? Borders separating interior and exterior, immediate and distant, self and other, finite and infinite, fusion and transcendence begin to dissolve. Another revelation: Holt completed Sun Tunnels in 1976 but the work cannot really be complete without the presence of the viewer(s).4 We are both subject and object. In fact, we are the art, “the field upon which patterns of the universe revolve.”5 In this sense, Sun Tunnels is forever in-transition, not just marking, but encompassing the passage of time.
There is so much intentionality (again, empathy) in the work that when another visitor pointed out the exact pass in the hills where the Reed and Donner families began to divest themselves of all their earthly possessions, red-flagging the beginning of their long, fateful end, I asked her, “Do you think Holt knew the land’s history when she chose this particular site?” “I don’t see how she couldn’t have,” she said.
Tunnels in particular held a strong allure for Holt, evoking basic and ancient human ritual: birth, transition, and death.6 Following Sun Tunnels, Holt pushed this evocation even further in several of her sculptures—building walk-through tunnels that penetrated the earth—but Sun Tunnels is the work for which she is most known, and one of the rare “famous” works of Land art by a woman. Unlike some of her male contemporaries, Holt was not interested in creating monolithic monuments that, in conception and scale, did not consider the body moving through space. The work of another female Land artist, Mary Miss, is similar in this regard. Central to the imagination of all of Holt’s work was the human experience.
If not for Holt’s framing, I don’t know that I would have noticed the tiny cowboy who, sometime in the late afternoon, appeared in my sightline on the southwestern horizon. Slowly, I watched him journey on his horse from one edge of my viewfinder to the other. At sunset, rays of brilliant orange light exploded within, from, and through the aligned, west-facing tunnels. Afterward, undone by the beauty of what I’d just witnessed, I lay within the easternmost tunnel, in anticipation of sunrise. I couldn’t sleep. I watched, transfixed, a hawk crisscrossing the night sky, silent save for the brief and sporadic flutter of its wings. I could see constellations through the constellations. All of my senses were heightened, including my sense of the divine. The wonder of the desert and, by extension, the universe—and by further extension—all of existence, perfectly channeled via four perforated concrete tubes.
Janet Saad-Cook with Charles Ross, Nancy Holt and James Turrell, “Touching the Sky: Artworks Using Natural Phenomena, Earth, Sky and Connections to Astronomy,” LEONARDO 21, no. 2 (1988), 127.
Troublemakers: The Story of Land Art, dir. James Crump (New York: First Run Features, 2016).
Pamela M. Lee, “Art as a Social System: Nancy Holt and the Second-Order Observer,” in Nancy Holt: Sightlines, ed. Alena J. Wiliams (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 41.
Miwon Kwon, One Place After Another: Site-specific Art and Locational Identity, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002).
Elizabeth Duvert, “With Stone, Star, and Earth: The Presence of the Archaic in the Landscape Visions of Georgia O’Keeffe, Nancy Holt, and Michelle Stuart,” in The Desert is No Lady: Southwestern Landscapes in Women’s Writing and Art, eds. Vera Norwood and Janice Monk (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1997), 214.
Nancy Holt with James Meyer, “Interview with Nancy Holt,” in Nancy Holt: Sightlines, ed. Alena J. Wiliams (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 229.