Text by H. Dargavel-Leafe.
At the top of the stairs in the Whitworth Art Gallery there is a small exhibition of works by the artist Nancy Holt who was part of the mostly American Land Art movement of the 60s and 70s. What I admire about Holt’s works here is that they are relatively uninvasive, unlike the work of many of her peers who were compelled to intervene in the landscape, from Robert Smithson’s small, removable Mirror Displacements to James Turrell’s massive, on-going installation in a volcanic crater.
Instead, Holt explores our perceptions of the place, space and time through her use of the camera. The exhibition is well coupled, I think, with Richard Long’s works in the next gallery as both are concerned with their journeys made through a place. Particularly comparable with Long is Holt’s piece Trail Markers (1969), one of the few pieces made by an American Land Artist in Britain (I suppose the landscape of America is so vast and varied there is not much need to venture elsewhere but, as Holt has noted, their country is very young and does not have the ruins of Western civilisation cut into its land as we have). The sequential hanging of the photographs echoes a strip of ﬁlm and the orange markers on the ancient, lichen-covered stones measure out her walk across Dartmoor, implying the journey between them. There is a conceptual link between her use of photography and the actuality of ﬁlm. Film is an illusion of passing time. With a ﬁnite number of successive frames per second it reduces real time to a series of moments which imply duration. In her photographic works Holt reduces our experience of a journey through a place to a few exposures, forming our perceptions.
Similarly, Western Graveyards (1968) form a sense of place by documenting many facets of the same thing. In a land so vast and dry and hostile to life she focuses on these little plots of land marked out for death. This is exaggerated by the artiﬁciality of the fake ﬂowers that adorn some of the graves. The whole that she implies is a human history akin to any ancient burial site, like the ruins she visited with her husband, Robert Smithson, in England and Mexico.
It is through Holt’s reﬂexive use of the camera lens that she deals with the perception of place, of the situation of a space in time. In the piece Concrete Visions (1967) the square viewﬁnder of the camera becomes part of this ready-made modernist monument she has stumbled across in New Jersey: the square photographs of square holes in bricks stacked up in square formations, emphasised in the ﬁnal photograph when the hole in the brick becomes a physical extension to the lens. The location is deﬁned through a series of acts of framing; the viewﬁnder of the camera ﬁnds viewﬁnders in the sites. And in California Sun Signs (1972) she uses her camera as a reﬂexive tool with which to capture the sun both as light and as a signiﬁer, presenting us with a series of shop signs and motels chosen for containing the word ‘sun’, with the real sun causing distortions on the negative.
The circle, the cycle and the sun recur through the works exhibited here. Holt’s most well known piece, Sun Tunnels (1973-76), is represented by her documentary-style ﬁlm as an aside, a contextualisation maybe for the rest of the exhibition. Holt’s photographic work – some of which has never been printed, never mind exhibited – is a quiet and considered presence that asks subtle questions that maybe the larger, demonstrative pieces of the Land Art movement miss.
H. Dargavel-Leafe is an artist based in Manchester.