Nancy Holt - Exhibition Review

Nancy Holt  'California Sun Signs (1'), 1972, Inkjet print on archival rag paper, printed from original 126 format transparencies; printed 2012, 38.1 x 38.1 cm © Nancy Holt, courtesy Haunch of Venison.

Nancy Holt

'California Sun Signs (1'), 1972, Inkjet print on archival rag paper, printed from original 126 format transparencies; printed 2012, 38.1 x 38.1 cm © Nancy Holt, courtesy Haunch of Venison.

Reviewed by Sophy Rickett

Published in Photomonitor

At times with photography, what’s in the picture – the thing in front of the camera, does not constitute the subject of the work.  The ‘real’ subject presents itself less readily, it remains hidden, fundamentally un-viewable, so we are left with in the photograph are traces of that primary subject matter, the presence of something offset by something other, something far less tangible. 

Wistman’s Wood (1969) shows the site of Buried Poem 1 (for Robert Smithson) (1969)– a site specific work where Nancy Holt buried a poem dedicated to Smithson, her partner, in a remote copse of stunted oak trees in the heart of Dartmoor.  Close-up details of thick damp moss, fresh sproutings of baby green foliage and the rough texture of ancient bark are illuminated by warm patches of mottled sunlight.  The photographs allude to the site, they picture it, but they do not complete the circle – they refer to something else, something entirely absent from the frame.  The poem as a subject is present only as a citation, a point of trust between her, and him, and ‘us’.  Likewise, the sun, in California Sun Signs (1972) features indirectly, a linguistic manifestation, a graphic display, an advertising hoarding; in each case absent as a subject, present as a sign, a kind of semiotic landscape both literally and metaphorically. 

The dialogue between Holt’s seminal land art works Sun Tunnels (1973 – 76) and the series of photographs in Sunlight in Sun Tunnels (1976) emphasizes the importance of photographic processes to her practice in general.  Substantially more than visual records of her sculptural work, the photographs offer insights into how our experience of the world is informed by a kind of photographic ontology.  The motif of the frame recurs throughout her practice recalling the act of seeing itself.  But more than that, Holt is interested in how our encounter with the world is formulated by a dialogue between near and far.  Small apertures incised in the thick walls of the four concrete tunnels that make up Sun Tunnels mirror different constellations of stars so that during the course of a day, sharp-edged patches of circular sunlight inch their way across the smooth insides of each gloomy tunnel.  The tunnels are like viewing devices, they are frames, they provide a viewing position, a way in to the spectacle.  The enormous and unimaginable scale produced by the rotation of the earth in relation to the sun is contained inside this small dusty space, and the experience is one of pure intimacy.  The thirty photographs in Sunlight in Sun Tunnels were taken from a fixed camera position every 30 minutes over the course of a day.  They suggest the ebb and flow of cyclical time, time in circles, close up and far away and then close up again, rather than the relentless onward march of chronological time.

The distinction between Holt’s sculptural and photographic works also acts as a starting point from which to consider the series of photographs Light and Shadow Photo-Drawings (1978), a project that started and ended with the processes of photography, dispensing with subject matter altogether.  Here, projected circles of light interact in a kind of choreography of soft geometric forms that Holt referred to later as ‘the concretization of sight’. 

Trail Markers (1969) is a series of twenty photographs that show a landscape as defined through a series of trail markers in the form of orange dots painted onto granite boulders, dry stone walls, and wooden gate posts.  Originally, the trail markers were photographed by the artist in sequence, in the same order they were encountered, but in the installation, that narrative has been disrupted, so it no longer makes sense chronologically.  In a further rejection of the idea that landscape is best viewed from the single fixed position characteristic of much lens-based imagery, the series develops Holt’s understanding of landscape not as a subject in itself, but as a site of experience, a measure of place. 

We connect with the world, she seems to be saying, through our physical connection to the ground.  We walk through, or we stand very still and we witness the incredible effects of the movement of our earth as it spins through space.

08.06.12 - 25.08.12

Haunch of Venison / London / England