Installation view, University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, 2021 Photo: Christopher Diani
“I wanted to examine the human perception of time and space, earth and sky.” –Nancy Holt
Nancy Holt’s work addresses the consistent examination of how we attempt to understand our place in the world. The artist is one of the most important figures of earth, land, and conceptual art movements. An innovator of site-specific installation and the moving image, she recalibrated the limits of art, expanding the places where art could be found and embracing the new media of her time. Across five decades she investigated perception, systems and place.
Electrical System exposes resources so common to contemporary life that their visual, tangible existence often goes forgotten. It consists of lightbulbs connected by a long metal conduit that curves and winds, inviting viewers to meander through arches of light. The System Works, like her formative text, audio and light investigations, make use of found systems to reveal what is unseen. They are formed from standard industrial materials designed for introducing heating, ventilation, lighting and drainage into the built environment—as Holt noted, they expose “fragments of vast, hidden networks” that are “part of vast open-ended systems, part of the world.”
In 1971 she created her first sculptures, “seeing devices,” as she called them, drawing attention to visual perception and place. The Locators comprise industrial piping welded into a T-shape and are to be looked through with one eye. They direct attention to the time-bound processes of vision. In 1992, she recalled: “I woke up one morning, I went to a welding place, made some of these Locator pieces, and overnight I had produced physical objects. They weren't things that you looked at, but they were things you looked through. I would zero in on something you wouldn't notice at all until you looked through my Locator, and then you would be kind of startled.”
Photography was an essential medium for Holt – it enabled “vision to be fixed,” as she often said.
From 1968 she traveled through the US Interstate Highway System to create visual poems from repeating observed occurrences of human marks in the landscape. California Sun Signs (1972) is a visual poem collecting the word "sun" as it appears in nineteen commercial and infrastructural contexts throughout the state of California. Uniting disparate sites into a solar-ordered system in vibrant images, she reveals common inferences and conceptions of the sun.
Through her work Western Graveyards (1968) Holt brings together sixty pared-back gravesites in Lone Pine, California and Virginia City, Nevada—sites full of enduring sculptural concerns with memorial and material encounters. Some graves are marked with names to be remembered: mother, father, Baby Baxter. Some map out a space for rest in stone, shells and fences. A few rise into ruin, headstones slipping to the ground, protective railings buckled, flower bushes dried out.