Discovering Nancy Holt’s photographic works is a really unique experience, but the Haunch of Venison’s breathtaking new space on New Bond Street made it even more exciting.
For the most part, Nancy Holt’s photographs are series that, on a first level, simply document her sculptures or actions in the landscape. But of course, they do more than just documenting: on a second level, they tightly frame the world, construct a vision, and conduct our gaze. The grids order our perception but also open up little windows on the land, while also building relationships and time sequences from an image to another.
The square room, towards the beginning of the exhibition, functions as a landmark and a statement: four bodies of works are wittily assembled there, under the high windowed ceiling through which the sun softly shines. As for the images, they are all variations on one of Nancy Holt’s obsessions: the sun itself. One single image is of a Temple of the Sun (1969) in Palenque. Opposite to it, you discover Views Through a Sand Dune (1972), a photographic presentation of one of Holt’s sculptures consisting of a pipe inserted inside a dune. Through it you can observe a rounded framing of the surrounding landscape flooded by the seaside light. On the third wall, 18 prints of California Sun Signs (1972) show billboards and signposts that contain the word “sun”. This collection of images and words brings to mind fun games that you play on the road, while also being a study on repetition and typography. They are monumentally hung in a large circle. And when you turn around, you are faced with a vision of Nancy Holt’s best-known work: the Sun Tunnels. Again, it is a series (a grid of thirty images), again the work plays with the idea of the sun, its effects and its course, and again it is both a document of a site-specific work and a work in itself. The beauty and the subtleties of the changing light of a whole day on the tunnels’ concrete and on the desert ground have a serene and emotional feel. They also bring to mind thoughts of the tension between enclosure and openness, small human construction and its place in the cosmos, or simply between hard manufacturing and soft natural change. They give you a sense of travel, time and experience even though you have never been to the Great Basin Desert in Utah yourself. (Sunlight in Sun Tunnels, 1976)
After having almost felt the stroke of sunshine on your skin in this special room, other types of works are presented to you. The next room focuses on light (artificial this time), and its relation to the camera. The large prints of the Light and Shadow Photo-Drawings (1878) offer black and white abstract images of geometrical forms: circles and straight lines are juxtaposed and superimposed to create subtle shades of grey. They are hung close to the aesthetically striking Time Outs (1985), pictures (again in black and white) of football players on TV. Nancy Holt explains that she was interested in the players’ movements, and in the quality of the light coming from the video. The movements are captured as if in long exposure, which creates fascinating blurs and undulating lines. But the most interesting aspect of this series is the texture of the now disappeared grain of the old televisions. For the contemporary viewer, it cannot but resonate as a reflection on the obsolescence of technology. Past this thought, however, remains that this large series has a visual depth and goes beyond the anecdotal character of a football game to drag you into a parallel universe where bodies become light and almost disappear.
You then go up the stairs to find the high windowed ceilings again, and a beautiful shiny wooden floor. On the wall is the entire series of 60 photographs of Western Graveyards (1968), which is not, in spite of its name, as nostalgic and sad as the adjacent Pine Barrens (1975). The colour photographs of individual graves do not talk of death or even merely of emotions, they rather just show facts of the landscape, plots of lands that have been personalised. Nancy Holt was interested in the enclosed aspect of the tombs, and how paradoxical it was with the myth of the open West, as she explains in this film.
Other works present in the exhibition come back to the mind as poetic sentences, like the Concrete Poem (1968), the Buried Poem (1969), the Trail Markers (1969), or the vision of the artist walking up and down hills (that function more like film stills than the first three). They all contribute to recreating Nancy Holt’s very personal and emotional universe – always tinted with the ghostly presence of Robert Smithson, her late husband – very well conveyed in this beautiful exhibition.
Nancy Holt | Photoworks | 8 June – 25 August 2012 | Haunch of Venison, New Bond Street, London