New York

Nancy Holt

John Weber Gallery

The campus of Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington, is now the site of many contemporary sculpture projects; one of the latest is Nancy Holt’s Stone Enclosure: Rock Rings, which was documented in a recent show in New York. The work is a compass and an observatory; there are two concentric walls or rings of rock 20 and 40 feet in diameter, with four arches on the north/south axis (as defined by Polaris) and 12 holes oriented to the other points of the compass (NE/SW, E/W, etc.). It is both a very real site and a very abstract system; somehow this makes it seem to be at once the center (of a universe it charts) and just another center (in a Pascalian universe whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere). So it seems both absolute and arbitrary. This is mediated, however, by the path of the sun (the light in the holes) that is specific and unique to the site, its longitude/latitude. In 1977 Holt did a work in the desert called Sun Tunnels that marked the solstices at that spot; of the experience she wrote, “‘Time’ is not just a mental concept or a mathematical abstraction in the desert. . . . ‘Time’ takes on a physical presence.” This occurs at Stone Enclosure too, and it is such presence (or trace) that “grounds” it, makes it less abstract.

The work asks for such lay excursions into philosophy. For example, do the coordinates of space and the increments of time exist at the site before or without the definition that is Stone Enclosure? Which “marks” which? It is common sense to say that, as a system, it is defined by the law of the compass. However, as a site, it defines the compass, makes it seem more like a convention. In a sense, like all centers, it invents the order that it measures.

The two rings form a mandala, an old symbol of universal unity. The mandala of Holt’s Stone Enclosure, unlike the spiral of Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, does not reveal itself as one walks around it; viewing the thing is not the same as reading the form. Inside the rings, one looks out the compass holes and the salient form is axial (the holes inscribe holes within the circles); outside, one looks upon the ring and the form is circular. There is a relativity here that upsets the absolute space/time of the system and the absolute unity of the symbol (the mandala and the square-in-the-circle). In a sense, it only “works” without us; excluded, we can only perceive it as it “perceives” the universe.

I suppose the remoteness of Bellingham from New York is reason enough for a show of photographs and information, but the translation into documents seems too easy. It glosses over the site: the actual spot does not seem important to the system. For all the specificity of the traces of the sun, Stone Enclosure is the work of a mind that “thinks” landscape abstractly. This is necessary, I am sure, inasmuch as “landscape” is a cultural term, but for a native of the area it hurts a bit. So too, the documents do not seem very integral to the work. They are not records, for Stone Enclosure is not transitory or concerned with entropy, as many “marked sites” and “site-constructions” are. They do, however, demystify it, make it less of a mystery or monument.

Hal Foster