Contemporary artists pay homage to land art legend Nancy Holt

Contemporary artists pay homage to land art legend Nancy Holt

At the 12th-century Lismore Castle, Ireland, a group show ‘Light and Language’ explores the enduring legacy of American conceptual and land art pioneer Nancy Holt

Nancy Holt was an artist who rethought what art could be. Rather than placing work on the land, the work was the land. Over a five-decade career, she posed complex questions about our humanity’s place in the world, many of which remain pertinent today. 

Her palpable influence in contemporary art is currently being explored at Lismore Castle through the work of five artists: Matthew Day Jackson, Dennis McNulty, Charlotte Moth, A.K. Burns and Katie Paterson. This marks the first time Holt’s work has been staged in conversation with 21st-century artists who have drawn from her legacies.

Nancy Holt, Electrical System (1982), Electricity, light bulbs, conduit, sockets.
Nancy Holt, Electrical System (1982), Electricity, light bulbs, conduit, sockets. © Holt/Smithson Foundation. Courtesy Parafin, London and Sprüth Magers. Photography: Ros Kavanagh

At the heart of ‘Light and Language’ is Holt’s room-sized installation Electrical System (1982). On view for the first time in more than three decades, this is an example of Holt’s innovative ‘systems sculptures’ that make the innards of buildings perceivable. As Holt once said: ‘the electrical systems light, the heating systems heat. The drainage systems drain, the ventilation sustains circulate air [...] the sculptures are exposed fragments of vast hidden systems, they are part of open-ended systems, part of the world.’ Comprising more than 100 glowing light bulbs, Electrical System is a web of light.

Accompanying Electrical System are fourteen further works by Holt spanning 1966 to 1982. Visitors will encounter concrete poetry, photographic experiments with light and shadow, works relating to her iconic earthwork Sun Tunnels (1973-76), and her video collaboration with Richard Serra, Boomerang (1974). Within the castle grounds and Lismore town are Holt’s Locators that, as she described, are ‘literally seeing devices’ that push human vision to its limits. 

Nancy Holt, Light and Shadow Photo Drawings (1978), inkjet prints on archival rag paper taken from original 35mm slide
Nancy Holt, Locator (PS1) (1980), steel pipe, drawing medium, black paint
Top: Nancy Holt, Light and Shadow Photo Drawings (1978), inkjet prints on archival rag paper taken from original 35mm slide. Above: Nancy Holt, Locator (PS1) (1980), steel pipe, drawing medium, black paint. © Holt/Smithson Foundation, Courtesy Parafin, London and Sprüth Magers, Photography: Ros Kavanagh

American artist Matthew Day Jackson is exhibiting Commissioned Family Photo (2013). It comprises eighty-two photographs taken with a camera capable of capturing more than a million frames per second. It was designed to record explosions and shockwaves from nuclear detonations; the artist and his family are the only human beings ever to have been photographed by this camera.

‘My work is about our destructive potential and the fact that we are the only animals to be capable and aware of our own extinction. The record of my family’s existence in these photographs is forcing one of the potential tools of our extinction to recognize that we exist,’ he says. ‘I love thinking that the work that we leave behind will be contextualised outside of our control. I hope that my work in the show somehow would fit into her [Holt’s] idea of what would be acceptable.’

Matthew Day Jackson, Commissioned Family Photo (2013), 82 framed photos
Matthew Day Jackson, Commissioned Family Photo (2013), 82 framed photos. © Matthew Day Jackson. Courtesy the artist and Hauser and Wirth

During her lifetime, Holt’s work was somewhat eclipsed by that of her husband, the land artist Robert Smithson – an all-too-familiar story in the history of 20th-century art. ‘I knew about Nancy Holt in graduate school but she was overshadowed by the expansive scholarship of her husband’, he says. ‘It is a problem with what we know of as art history, but I am happy that there is more scholarship being dedicated to her work. Future artists will have a better, more foundational relationship with Holt’s work and that makes me happy.’ 

Scottish artist Katie Paterson has created a new work responding to the architecture of Lismore Castle. Her ‘Ideas’ wall pieces are subtle: short texts that ‘when read come alive through the visitor’s imaginations’. Discrete in scale, they are cut from silver and reflect brightly when the light hits them. ‘Within the majesty of the castle grounds they almost disappear, and I like this encounter.’ says the artist. ‘I learned about Nancy Holt’s work, and the wider land-art movement as a student, and it completely changed my outlook on what art can be, and what it can achieve; as a physical presence and as an experience.’ Paterson is also exhibiting a large scale billboard piece, Inside this desert lie the tiniest grain of sand, which depicts a nano-sized grain of sand being scattered in the Sahara desert.

Katie Paterson, The universe’s lights switched off one by one (2015), Micro waterjet cut sterling silver
Katie Paterson, The universe’s lights switched off one by one (2015), Micro waterjet cut sterling silver. © Katie Paterson. Photography: Ros Kavanagh

The artist also reflects on her affinity with Holt’s artistic sensibilities: ‘her work showed me how expansive art can be; through its material form (she worked across mediums) it’s scale, its conceptual language and emotional and perceptual impact. Nancy Holt worked with the cyclical time of the universe, the motions of the earth and the sun. She aimed to ‘connect people with the planet earth’, to bring ‘the sky down to earth’ which chimes very much with my approach.’ 

‘Nancy Holt is an incomparable artist whose work has laid the ground for the art of today. Demanding that we look harder and think deeper about how we understand our place on the planet, Holt’s is a powerful voice,’ says Lisa Le Feuvre, curator of Light and Language and executive director of Holt/Smithson Foundation. 

Holt was a pioneer of perception, and this show proves the enduring gravity of her work. Collectively, these artists, armed with their mutual affinity with this trailblazing artist, are maintaining Holt’s legacy: that through light and language, we can try to make a little more sense of the world. §

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