I’m stuck on the words “human interventions in landscape” accompanying Nancy Holt’s early photographic series, “Western Graveyards.” The collection of dilapidated and overgrown burial sites, photographed in 1968, occupies a corner of the exhibition Nancy Holt: Sightlines at the Santa Fe Art Institute.
Curator Alena Williams identifies the show’s focus as “the development of [Holt’s] aesthetic sensibility between the years of 1966 and 1980,” so that would put the graveyard photos at the outset of that development. We could walk away from them, into the next space, where photos of Holt’s famous “Sun Tunnels” (1973-1976) demonstrate her transformation from observer to maker of “human interventions,” but I’ve lapped the gallery, and I’m stuck here.
I should note that though the concrete cylinders that make up “Sun Tunnels” are part of her process—the art of Holt’s installation isn’t in the objects themselves, but in what we see through them. The possibilities captured by the photographs, collected and arranged in varying configurations, seem endless. Moreover, a visitor to the site in Great Basin Desert, Utah adds her own view to these perspectives, nonetheless directed by Holt’s positioning of the cylinders.
Pamela M Lee, in an essay collected by Williams in a book complementing the exhibition, employs the writings of German social theorist Niklas Luhmann to Holt’s work, explaining the concept of “second-order observation.” Simply, when Holt shifted from an observer of human interventions to a creator of them, she also became an “observer of observations.” Lee, on the basis of Luhmann’s ideas, goes further to describe the role of the second-order observer in forming a “social system” around the art that also asks the observer to play “a formative role in its constitution.”
It’s all very heady, meta material, and it raises serious questions about from where or from whom we take our views, and whether our conclusions have been orchestrated.
Circling back to “Western Graveyards,” we see a clear distinction between the unintended intervention and the intended one, the difference between what Luhmann might identify as “art and nonart.” How would we approach “Sun Tunnels” if the objects were found like those in “Western Graveyards”? Anyone who has spent time on rivers or beaches has become accustomed to concrete drainage systems, which really don’t look so different from “Views through a Sand Dune” (1972) or “Hydra’s Head” (1974). So our perception of what constitutes art changes our understanding of the object, and draws our attention to something we’d ordinarily ignore.
This isn’t anything new, of course. Artists have been defamiliarizing for some time. And Buddhists have understood even longer the isolating nature of perspective. But viewed in reverse, within the context of Holt’s later second-order observations, the graveyards represent the artist’s desire to make us understand the way we see. Did she create those concrete boxes? In a sense, she did when she photographed them and presented them as art. We ask what she wants us to see from that perspective, rather than from an angle just to the left or toward the horizon. Then, we have to decide if we see it the same way.
Nancy Holt: Sightlines: Through June 29. Santa Fe Art Institute, 1600 St. Michael's Drive, 424-5050
Follow The Curator on Twitter: @mji76