Nancy Holt, Ventilation System, 1985–92, steel ducts, turbine ventilators, shanty caps, fans, air, dimensions variable. From the series “System Works,” 1981–92. Photo: Mikael Lundgren.

Nancy Holt, Ventilation System, 1985–92, steel ducts, turbine ventilators, shanty caps, fans, air, dimensions variable. From the series “System Works,” 1981–92. Photo: Mikael Lundgren.

Nancy Holt

For an artist whose career spans five decades, Nancy Holt (1938–2014) holds the dubious honor of being known primarily for one work. Holt’s 1973–76 Land art masterpiece Sun Tunnels keeps her linked in collective memory with the movement and its artists, among them her partner Robert Smithson and the couple’s friend Michael Heizer. Yet the stakes of her practice, predicated on reflexive structures that operate in collaboration with their surroundings, stand in contrast to the ethos of Land art itself. As Holt commented presciently in her notes for a self-interview (later revised for the April 1977 issue of Artforum), “I am not interested in building megalithic monuments in the middle of nowhere.” The artist was fascinated instead by the invisible or unconsidered systems that frame our understanding of open space as the eye and the body traverse it. This motivation is overlooked when she is lumped together with her peers who carved out new monuments in the American desert’s “untainted” blankness, which they saw as a counterpoint to the commercial art world.

This expansive retrospective, “Inside Outside,” curated by Holt/Smithson Foundation executive director Lisa Le Feuvre and Bildmuseet director Katarina Pierre, interweaves photographs that operate as stand-alone works with walls and vitrines crowded with the plans, drawings, films, and photographic documentation of her installations’ development and realization. The show and its accompanying catalogue situate her practice in New York’s Conceptual art scene of the 1960s, with Smithson, Joan Jonas, and others making appearances in her photos and videos. The milieu surrounding Harper’s Bazaar, where she was an assistant literary editor from 1966 to 1967, is also positioned as an important scene for the young artist. “Back then it seemed one’s work was one’s reality,” Holt later reflected. “I had no product, and I was a woman, so I was in a sense nonexistent, and yet I was in the midst of that situation where I was carrying on conversations, and sharing and reading the same books as those around me.” With limited means and without a studio, she resolved the issue of production with a string of concrete poems (the earliest pieces on view here) beginning in 1966, before branching out to photographic and multimedia works documenting walks across the English moor (Trail Markers, 1969) and paths cut through an abandoned wooded property in New Jersey (Stone Ruin Tour, 1967).

Holt was catholic in her choices of sites, which ranged from the subarctic woodlands of Eklutna, Alaska, where she photographed Russian burial markers, to the beaches of Narragansett, Rhode Island, where she installed tubing that served as lenses through the dunes. She followed her nomadic urges while skewering coastal stereotypes in East Coast/West Coast, 1969, a twenty-three-minute black-and-white video made in collaboration with Smithson that is intriguing both as a time capsule and for its (somehow still germane) dispute. The video takes the form of a mock debate in which Holt plays the New York Conceptual Artist. Smithson, identified only as a West Coast Artist, portrays a caricatural Californian hippie type aspiring to “get myself a ranch out in the Fresno Hills and just sit around there and groove on the grass”; she chides him for his impracticality and lack of intellectual rigor. The couple’s parody almost performs the dueling motivations of Land art itself.

The very notion of physical space as something to be occupied misses the point of Holt’s project, which sought to move the viewer through space like a current. Her additions into the landscape are less interventionist than responsive. Bildmuseet’s ambitious retrospective pushes this aim to the foreground by presenting a new iteration of Ventilation System, 1985–92, from her “System Works” series, 1981–92. The large, impassive structures, made from standard industrial materials such as ventilators and steel ducts, are adapted to the dimensions of their host building and weave sinuously and unobtrusively throughout it. Tellingly, they appear not superimposed upon but instead integral to the museum’s infrastructure and carapace. Like Sun Tunnels, which distills the harsh desert sun into disks of light cast on cool concrete interiors, these ventilators harness an immaterial force particular to this site: the air that courses through it.