Nancy Holt

Interviewed by Micky Donnelly

Nancy Holt is an American sculptor, based in New York. She was invited by the Independent Artists group to participate in their open-air sculpture exhibition in Marlay Park, Dublin, showing from May to September 1983. Holt’s work, Sole Source, will remain there indefinitely.

MD How do you place yourself as an artist within that shift or movement in American art from Minimalism, through Conceptualism, towards Land Art and Environmental Art?

NH I don’t see myself as being part of any movement, but all those so-called Movements that you’ve mentioned have had an effect on me. I don’t feel particularly a part of any one of them. I think my work has moved into other areas, into more architectural kind of structures, and more recently into functionalism, where I’m doing functional systems – putting function back into art again, moving away from my earlier concerns with perception.

MD The earlier work, especially the Locators (essentially, small pipes that the viewer looked through at specific images), were very much concerned with perception, the mapping out of visual information.

NH Yes. Those movements you mentioned were movements that were delineated by critics but I see other movements, like Perceptual Art, which was often overlooked. There was a lot of it happening at one point and for some reason, because of the confluence of certain interests and media preoccupations, it was never totally concretised in people’s minds, even though it was there. I felt part of that at the time, and also I was doing things outdoors when some of the larger Earthworks were being done in the late sixties. I was doing smaller site-orientated things, and, certainly, perceiving sites and working with them and getting out of the gallery context was very much part of the energy and direction of my work. I found galleries very constricting; not that that was the only impetus to get outside – it was really more of an opening up to the outside world, letting other things into art other than the sort of hollow abstraction that had been occurring in the art-world. So, in opening myself up to the external possibilities I was refreshing my psyche and my mind, and I was seeing how stale the gallery context was, and the preciosity that develops in that kind of context. I don’t think artists can exist without some kind of social structure and some kind of commercialism because we have to eat and pay our rent, but to have that system surround one and stifle one, as was happening in the mid-sixties, was a mistake. The system should just be there for the artist to participate in for everyone’s advantage, most importantly the artist’s.

MD Could we talk a bit about the earlier gallery work and its relation to the outside work? The Locators seemed to be concerned with specific perceptual arrangements – they seemed quite explicit, dealing with illusory manipulations of site.

NH No, not illusory. I think it was about looking with the naked eye, not illusion at all, looking at the world and looking at it straight, looking at it without the camera lens. It was more about focusing in on everyday things, the things of the world. The very first Locators always looked out and brought the outside world back into the interior. Later, I got more interested in sight itself, the shape of sight, and the concretising of vision. Then I got interested in the interconnection between sight and light, and I started doing room-size light pieces that enveloped people –  as soon as you walked into the room you became part of the work of art – and so already I was dealing with an architectural kind of space. In order to perceive the work you had to be part of it and perceive it from many points of view.

MD There was one work where there was a Locator, in the centre, ‘looking’ towards an oval cut from a board covering the window and, on the other side, an oval of light on the wall that was actually projected by a spotlight. But the oval of light from the board seemed to be projected on to the wall. That’s what I meant earlier about illusory manipulation.

NH That’s interesting. I didn’t mean that work to be an illusion. Someone wrote a review of it, however, in Artforum and they had the same kind of misconception about it as you do. Actually, it was more a comparison of electric light and sunlight. Also it was about how, with a spotlight at an angle, you can set up the same shape as your vision takes as you look through the Locator tube. It was making that kind of analogy that vision and light are similar. In the Middle Ages, there were many drawings done where light was shown emanating from the eyes; I can understand how they arrived at that.

MD You say light and vision are the same, in a sense, but you’ve also used light almost as a physical material in some works, say in Holes of Light, where projected light alternated from side to side of the gallery, moving through the space in a certain way. The light acted as physical stuff almost, kind of detached from vision.

NH Yes, that’s true. The light seemed to have a physical presence. And, of course, I drew around where the circles of light were, so that when the light went away you could see where it had been, giving it even more of a physicality, in that it could come and go. But also in that work I set up a double visual situation, where one could have the sensation of being in a sight zone, a zone of vision, making perception conscious. One’s own vision being always relative to the ‘double vision’ of the work.

MD You made a statement around 1975 – “Using a variety of materials, steel, cement, mirror, quarto, light, video, film, I am concerned primarily with the concretisation of perception. My work is made to be seen in depth from multiple points of view.” Could you be more specific about the phrase ‘concretisation of perception’?

NH It’s thinking about one’s own perceptions, it’s a double-take, let’s say – setting up situations where people do a double-take and where, by looking through something, they really focus, really perceive intensely the thing seen. Sometimes, by setting up these limited visions through holes and things, you get that sensation that the thing on the other end is surreal, or uncanny.

MD Again, you wouldn’t say illusory? For example, in the piece Views Through a Sand Dune, from a distance the hole through the dune looked like a mirror.

NH Some people came by there in boats and most of them thought it was a mirror, until they got up close to it. But that’s not the effect I’m trying to get though. I was just trying to zero in on the landscape in a perceptual way, and sometimes in doing so some kinds of bizarre things happened. Someone asked me recently whether I was producing enigmas, and I said absolutely not. I’m just doing my work as straightforward as I can, and if the work has an enigmatic quality it’s due to the work itself. It’s not that I’m trying to achieve that.

MD Can we talk a bit about Sun Tunnels? They seemed much more to do with physical, material conditions rather than with visual perception. You mentioned on a previous occasion that you were looking for a ‘total experience’ in the work. Did the work change a lot towards more physical, sculptural things?

NH Well, yes and no. That piece Views Through a Sand Dune had some of the physical feeling of Sun Tunnels and some of the room-size works I was doing were big and you walked into them – they were all very sculptural. So I think it was all those things coming together, in Sun Tunnels, certainly in a more massive physical way, and certainly it was my largest work at that point. It developed out of my concern with the realisation that light and sight were interconnected and then also out of my feeling about that place. I had done, by the way, in the late sixties, a series of buried poems which evolved out of certain sites, very remote sites generally. For these, I would study up on the region, its history and geology and flora and fauna; so that, for a long time, outdoor sites had been things I’d considered at great length. And Sun Tunnels came out of those concerns with site. I’d also done some other outdoor works, like the ring of Locators in Montana, Missoula Ranch Locators. So all of those things combined really.

MD Now, you aligned the tunnels to the sunrise and sunset at the solstices, and that obviously brings more universal or cosmological ideas into the work. The interesting thing I found about the Sun Tunnels was that it took so long to get to the site, by car or whatever, and, as you said in your seminar, when people got there they tended to ‘hang out’ in the tunnels – which seems kind of everyday or prosaic – and at the same time there’s this huge cosmological implication in the work. I found that kind of split between the prosaic and the universal very interesting, and I also wondered about the mythological or even spiritual notions, say in relation to something like Stonehenge.

NH I’d been to Stonehenge and I knew a lot about the ancient megaliths aligned to the sun but the work did not come out of those kind of things, at least they weren’t a direct inspiration. People will often bring this up in regard to my work and it’s acceptable to me after the fact, but it certainly wasn’t a conscious motivation.

MD Also, the fact that you used certain star constellations aligned to the small holes along the tunnels would suggest mythological connections.

NH Now, actually, I had to find constellations which looked good wrapped around the top of the cylinders, that had enough stars to make it interesting, that had enough different sized stars because the holes are different sizes according to the magnitude of the stars. So, there were really only six constellations that looked good and out of the six I chose four. But that’s private knowledge, you don’t have to know that when you go to see the work.

MD Well, I assumed that there was a certain mythological content in another piece, Hydra’s Head, at the Niagara River, where you referred to stars in the constellation Hydra.

NH With Hydra’s Head I tried several constellations and strangely enough Hydra’s head looked the best, so it was really an aesthetic decision – I cut the head off the constellation and used one star from the neck and called it Hydra’s Head instead of Hydra. But I was very happy that it was the water serpent, it fitted in so well in a literary way.

MD So, in a way, you seem to work from a practical or pragmatic approach and by a process of discounting certain things you end up with something very suitable and often very poetic…

NH That’s true. I like being very practical.

MD What about the technology involved in Sun Tunnels then? Judging by your film Sun Tunnels, showing their construction, you seem to be fascinated with the technology involved in creating something like that.

NH Well, it’s important to keep in mind that the technology used there is very low-level technology, actually. Earth-moving equipment and trucks and things might look big and imposing, but you have to have those basic implements just to get things done. So, it was no big deal. In terms of the process, on the level of coordinating things, and maintaining the pace and making sure everything goes O.K. and interrelating with the people involved, all that becomes part of the work for me. That’s an important aspect of it. But the work exists in and of itself; people don’t have to know about my involvement with all these processes when they see the work.

MD Well, I found the film very enlightening. When I first saw photographs of Sun Tunnels it seemed very quiet and relaxed, almost, in its placement, but when I saw the film and saw the planning, the logistics and the technology involved, they gave it another meaning for me. It was almost as if it could be seen as a monument to technology, rather than a sort of system of cosmological awareness, or whatever.

NH No, I don’t see it that way. I have to go through certain processes to get the work done but it’s the work that counts for me. I always emphasise the work itself.

MD If we look at some of the later work, say Annual Ring for example, there again seems to be a sort of dichotomy within the work between the everyday or prosaic and the cosmological. You said that you liked the idea of people coming to this “place of the sun” to eat lunch. Was that kind of thing, that opposition, becoming more important in some way?

NH Well, I don’t know. It’s true what you said. I use very prosaic, down-to-earth, commonplace materials. I build to human scale; I don’t want to build huge monuments that dwarf mankind. I don’t see any point in that. I want to build things that people feel good about getting inside of. Not that I want to create, by the way, a place of no tension – I want to set up always the tension between the outside, or the periphery, and the centre; that there should always be that edge when you’re in you think about being out. when you’re out you think about being in.

MD The main difference between Sun Tunnels and Annual Ring is that Sun Tunnels is in the desert, very inaccessible, and Annual Ring is in an urban space, very accessible. Was that a deliberate move towards urban situations?

NH I feel I can work in many different kinds of environments and I want to maintain that flexibility. With the Sun Tunnels situation, that is the ultimate freedom for any artist – to go out and buy one’s own land and make the work on it, with no-one designating what the site has to be. That is optimum freedom. I can’t always do that. I have, by the way, bought other land to make other pieces, but to raise money to do art on one’s own land is quite difficult – you can get money to do work in the city, in a university, in a park, or in other public places, but even if I could raise sufficient money, I would continue doing other commissions because I find some of these commissions very exciting. With the Annual Ring piece I had a very limited choice of sites, but it varies – each commission is different in the amount of choice I have over the site.

MD How would you feel about criticism of Inside Out: because of the movement into urban situations, public park situations and because you were using domes and wrought iron, that work took on a very ‘botanical garden’ feeling? In fact, with the flowers arranged around it, it looked dainty.

NH Dainty. (Laughs). Well, that work has more of a garden kind of quality to it. I can’t imagine that work any other place than where it is, and if you don’t know Washington that work, seen out of context, is difficult. I don’t often show slides of it, unless people know what the place is like – everywhere you look you see a dome, so it repeats the domes in the distance.

MD So, obviously, you weren’t trying to challenge that kind of organised space?

NH No, I didn’t go against the environment with that work. As a matter of fact. I don’t generally go against the environment, I pick up on the environment. I like to work with the site, with what’s there.

MD Even if that involves an apparent trivialisation of your earlier concerns? I mean, that’s the way I first saw that Inside Out piece, as a kind of pretty arrangement. Maybe to clarify this point, could we talk about Rock Rings in relation to those wrought iron pieces? It seemed to have a very disorientating spatial effect, whereas they didn’t.

NH Well, actually, no; the wrought iron works do disorientate, in a different way – they spin. That’s one of the strongest aspects of that Washington piece. Two roads come together there and, when you drive or walk by, the work spins optically because of the bars going round. It sets up a kind of cinematic quality; it’s like you’re seeing frames of the landscape go by. That’s where the perceptual aspect comes in. Now with Annual Ring, being inside of that, you feel that you’re both inside and outside simultaneously; it’s like an open enclosure. It’s the same with Inside Out, which was about that – you go inside and you’re out. … Actually that piece has a lot more going for it when you see it in reality. It’s like a drawing in space, there’s a lot more emptiness than material. You see, that’s interesting to me; I make all these structures just to emphasise empty spaces.

MD In Rock Rings, was there a movement towards more social interaction within the piece itself ? The earlier pieces seemed to be built for a solitary experience – you and the elements, or the site, the surroundings, whatever – whereas Rock Rings seems like something you go to with other people; you move through the maze-like area and part of the experience of the piece is seeing other people, through the holes, moving in different directions.

NH Yes. When that happens there’s a kind of double-take situation. But it wasn’t a movement towards that really. I always think about human scale. My work is always involved with people directly; even with the Locators you had to look through them. It’s always the interaction of the viewer and the art. As soon as you get into building things that have internal spaces you’re thinking about people moving through them. I always have a couple of openings that are large enough for people to get through; and the holes in Rock Rings are at eye-level to encourage looking.

MD So, as well as the perceptual disorientation, was there a playful aspect to Rock Rings?

NH Yes, sure. With all my work, there’s always that lighter side too. People seem to like that piece a lot, they’re in there all the time; people climb on it too. There is a certain gut experience. Many people can get into the work on some level, even though they can’t grasp it in its totality.

MD Well, that might bring us to the sculpture in Marlay Park. I thought it was a very playful piece of work; kids can climb on it, people can turn the valve on or off.

NH Yes, that’s very much part of it, although what you term “playfulness” was not my intent, but rather a by-product.

MD Also, from a short distance it looked utilitarian, very functional, but when you came up to it, it seemed quite illogical, almost like a parody of industrial design. Are you reflecting something like industrial design in a playful, whimsical way

NH (Laughs). No. Actually, I’m interested in taking basic technology, like plumbing, like electricity, drainage systems, things that are essential now to our lives – we couldn’t really get along without these things, but we’ve hidden them away, almost like we don’t want to own up somehow to our own technologies – and I want to expose them, make people more aware of them. In that sense, you could almost see these systems as metaphors of bodily systems – so that electrical systems are like nervous systems. These are very blatant metaphors, but I do think of them in that kind of way. So, out there, I guess what we might have is a urinary system (laughs) … It’s not a blood system because there’s no pump, if I was pumping the water it would be a blood system; but anyway, in a sense, it does have a body metaphor. So, I’m very interested in using these basic materials and recombining them in a new way. I’m fascinated by all these man-hole covers and water-main covers and things. There are some beautiful ones outside here with flowers on them, like mandalas. We live in a world of steel mandalas on the streets and nobody wants to really take a hard look at them.

MD So. again, you’re pointing to everyday situations and trying to make something ‘other’ from them?

NH Yes.

MD Maybe I’m reading too much into your interest in these basic systems but you seem to be consciously developing almost a new aesthetic, an aesthetic of the everyday, or something like that.

NH Well, what it’s about is putting function back into art. I want to emphasise that I’m tired of the isolation of aesthetics. There has been an aestheticising going on, and it was very much part of the Conceptual Art movement – there were artists during the sixties who would go around and select things in the world saying that they were works of art, or take photographs of them and they became works of art. There was a whole move to aestheticise the environment. At the same time, there was this new concern with archeology and artefacts, and a growing awareness of the history of local places – preservation societies and museums blossomed all over the United States. Right along some of my work has had a functional aspect, like indicating sun cycles or astronomical alignments, and with the park I’m working on now in Washington D.C., I have to think about people sitting down and having enough room for baby carriages and so on. So, by doing that, I am making art more functional. Art needs to be a more necessary part of the world, of society. And, in those works like Sole Source that actually have function in them as part of the work, within the art itself that statement is made. The system is emphasised; the function becomes the content of the work.

MD So. was there a decision made to involve the art with industrial systems of production, or already existing systems?

NH You see, none of the things I’ve been doing are production systems, they’re conduit systems. It’s really just setting up channels, networks – channels for energy. And all of my systems so far are open systems, they’re not closed. In the Marlay Park sculpture, the water is coming from the reservoir through the main pipe, it’s going through my piece and going down into the stream again; it’s not pumped through over and over again, it’s not a closed system. The electricity pieces I’ve been doing are the same thing – the electricity comes from the electrical company after being converted from other energy sources, goes through the work and gets burned up in light, which has a function, it lights the gallery space where the piece is installed. Now. with this piece in the park, here we have this elaborate system of pipes and we’re just getting these little streams of water out at the end. I just love the uselessness of that. So it functions, but it’s not grand, it just is. It’s laughable, in a sense all of this for that! So really. I’m just trying to expose these systems.

MD For an aesthetic end?

NH Yes, well, to make art out of it. I mean, the artworks are, in a sense, useless. They function, but they’re not altogether necessary, so that means they’re art, they work on another level. But they’re ‘hooked in’ to already existing functional systems, which is what we have here – it’s a pre-exisiting functional system, it brings water up to the house and to the gardens above, and there’s plenty of water pressure for everyone involved. And, of course, there’s a more poetic side to it too. It’s called Sole Source, referring to the water coming from one source and then splitting into two and then flowing into the river, and what that implies – Sole Source is meant in all its connotations.

MD Is there anything else you’d like to say specifically about that piece?

NH Well, I would like to say that I arrived here and it seemed like everything fell into place; there is a very good spirit here, and there was a harmony to this whole thing. Also, there was an incredible amount of help from Eoin O’Toole; he just gave himself over to this project – I couldn’t have done it without him. So I really want him to get his due.

MD Is that normal policy for you, to acknowledge the technical help you’ve had? I know you gave a lot of credit to the stonemason who worked on Rock Rings.

NH Well, when I’m working with people and they’ve really put a lot of themselves into the work, like with Rock Rings there was three months of stone-masonry, that becomes part of what the art is. So I felt it important to interview the mason because he knows things that I don’t, stuff from his trade that also applied to my work. When I know that a work couldn’t have been done except with a lot of help from somebody then I think they should get credit.

MD Is there an ideological implication there?

NH Yes, there is a certain ideological implication. I feel strongly that, for too long, critics have been ignoring the fact that art comes out of the matrix of society, and out of the situation of the worker. And that’s what this work in the park is about too, this is a plumbing piece, this emphasises plumbing. I would say that certain people in our society have been overlooked, at least in the United States – that the kind of wisdom and knowledge that the worker has in his or her craft has not been adequately considered in terms of art criticism, because art does come out of that. There’s a common knowledge about things and materials and how they get put together that we, as artists, absorb from the people around us, from the matrix of society. There’s such a small difference, really, in what we as artists do; it’s a matter of intent and decision.

MD Well, to finish off, anything more you’d like to say about working here?

NH Yes, since this is an Irish magazine – there’s a certain level of grace, or something, here in Ireland. That’s what I’ve discovered.

MD I don’t know what you mean (laughs).

NH There’s a certain kind of grace, which is why things seem to fall into place so easily. Even though we’ve been working constantly and it’s been hard, things have fallen nicely into place and there’s been a lot of good energy and cooperation. And that’s rare, very rare.

MD It’s interesting that you should frame it in those terms. It seems a very metaphysical way to look at it, for someone using functional systems.

NH Yes, maybe (laughs).

MD There seems to be a kind of opposition throughout your work – in a sense, you seem to be a mystic trying to get out and an engineer trying to get in.

NH (Laughs) Yes, but, you see, they say that mystics are really very practical people. It’s a misconception to think of mystics as dreamy, flighty people. In fact, they’re the most practical people.

Originally published in CIRCA Issue #11 – July / August 1983