Washington D.C.

Nancy Holt

Dark Star Park

In 1979 Nancy Holt was asked to erect a sculpture on a site in Rosslyn, a community just across the Potomac river from Washington, D.C. After visiting the proposed site, in a blighted urban area, Holt devised a plan to use the entire lot as a park that would also be a work of art. The project posed formidable bureaucratic obstacles. To ensure a harmonious relationship between the park and an office building to be constructed on the lot adjacent to the site, Holt got herself onto the committee that would approve the final architectural design. Through her efforts, a first plan for the building was rejected in favor of another. Holt’s idea for the park was to have it flow into the building’s plaza and surround some of its concrete columns; the building’s planner, architect, and landscaper not only came to accede to her wishes, but eventually worked in tandem with her. In addition, Holt wanted to extend the park to include a nearby traffic island, land which belonged to the State of Virginia. She was able to convince not only the building’s developer but also the Arlington County government and the state to go along with the plan. At a time of compromise and ill fated projects elsewhere in public art, Holt is clearly an able negotiator and diplomat and a powerfully persuasive voice.

Dark Star Park was completed last summer. It consists of two areas, visually linked in their landscaping, and deploying five gunite spheres, four upright steel pipes, two round pools, and two tunnels. The various sculptural and landscape elements are arranged in an interplay which varies with the viewer’s position. A hole running through one of the spheres on the traffic island, for example, lines up with a solid sphere in the section of the park across the road; it becomes a sighting instrument. In another kind of landscape device, black-asphalt patterns embedded in the traffic island’s fine gray gravel line up with shadows that the four erect poles and two spheres cast at 9:32 A.M. on August 1 each year, the exact time and day that, in 1860, the land that became Rosslyn was purchased by one William Henry Ross, after whom the town is named. Holt has found different, interacting ways to embody her concerns with measurement and location, the cycles of time, and the connections between objects, shadows, reflections, and space. At the same time, the barren surfaced gunite spheres can be seen as symbols of “dead” stars whirling through space. Dark Star Park establishes links between historical time and cyclical time, solid bodies and physical and visual passageways. We are made strikingly aware of our separateness from time and our simultaneous immersion in it. And yet, more than any of these readings, Dark Star Park is both a work of art and a place to sit and relax if you happen to work in a nearby building.

What separates Dark Star Park from other public-art projects is Holt’s ability to work beyond the traditional and avant garde definitions of what such art constitutes. Instead of plunking an appendage down on some predesignated site, Holt has built something that works with what’s around it. Her utopian rather than egotistic stance is rare not only in art, but in all areas of life.

John Yau