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Lessons in Hope and Light from the Utah Desert

Has anyone noticed some of the spectacular sunsets we’ve been having lately? Bright pink and burning gold. Or noticed the warm Earth smell in the evenings, the little orange and purple crocus flowers and yellow daffodils trumpeting the start of spring? Whilst still being bound in the restrictions of the ‘Winter Lockdown’, ‘Lockdown 3.0’ or ‘Oh s*it here we go again’ the slowly warming temperature, more apparent sunshine and green haze on the trees provides us with some light at the end of the tunnel.

This brings us to the visual artwork of the week. Sun Tunnels (1973–1976) by the American Land Artist Nancy Holt. Land Art was a craze in the 1960s primarily in America that took art out of the gallery and museum and installed or worked with the landscape. Often monumental in size, Land Art asked the viewer to reconsider their relationship with the earth, this was fostered by an increasing ecological awareness. Needless to say, the effect of humans on the environment is just as important an issue now as it was in the 60s, perhaps even more so.

Holt’s Tunnels are located in the Great Basin Desert in Utah. The artwork consists of four concrete cylinders arranged in a cross. Much like Prehistoric monuments such as Stonehenge which influenced many Land Artists, the configuration of cylinders aligns with the sunrise and sunset on the Summer and Winter Solstice. There are also four holes on top of each of the cylinders forming the constellations of Draco, Perseus, Columba and Capricorn. It is difficult to comprehend how large each of these cylinders are but they are monumental: 18 feet long and 9 feet in diameter (5,5 meters x almost 3 meters). 

Imagine walking towards these huge, grey concrete constructions. Scattered on the desert floor like dinosaur bones. From a distance they would look strange, even ugly. Obviously man-made structures against the stunning backdrop of mountains and isolated desert. Heat shimmer rising off them, as if they’re a figment of some God of modernity’s imagination. But once you’re closer you could step inside them, the cool shade caressing the skin across your back and shoulders with much needed relief from the sweltering sun. Sunlight filtering through the four holes in the top speckling the curvature of the cylinder with shade and light. Imagine sitting down in one of them, knees pressed against the cool, gritty surface. Turning your eyes to the horizon you see the sun as it fills the tunnel in front of you with thick golden light. It fills the tunnels and it fills you up, fills your eyes and paints your skin. You become connected to the tunnel, to the land, to the light. By being touched by the light and the concrete you become a part of the installation. The sun feels tangible, like you could reach up and pluck it out of the sky. At least that’s how I’d imagine my experience would go.

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Holt says about her work that the installation’s goal is to ‘bring the vast space of the desert back to human scale’ and that it is ‘an inversion of the sky/ground relationship-bringing the sky down to the earth.’ I’d say she certainly accomplishes this; the tunnels bring attention to the celestial bodies that encircle our planet, the sun is given reverence and attention. Tunnels could even be considered a temple of sun worship, there is something of the primeval about them. 

For me, I find them signifiers of hope. Imagine yourself back into one of those tunnels. Filled with light and with a desert landscape stretched before you. Yes, you would be made aware of the earth, the process of sunrise and sunset that gives life to the little blue planet we live on, but also, you are reminded of your place in it. You are witnessing the sun and the world as a part of it. The fortune of being able to witness something so beautiful. The way the light diffuses within these seemingly ugly structures creates something special and beautiful out of a base material. Perhaps there is a lesson to be learnt here. Of how beauty can be found in desolate places, that something artistic and pleasurable to experience can blossom in a desert. 

There is quite literally light at the end of the tunnel in this artwork and in our own lives. The Spring Equinox is a matter of weeks away and as we wait patiently to be able to see our friends and family, we can be comforted that light and beauty exist all around us and is waiting to be discovered. 

So, perhaps when we can travel again, I will take a trip to Utah to thank the monuments that reminded me of hope in a seemingly endless winter.  

Image: ‘Sun Tunnels’ by Nancy Holt (1973-1976)
Image courtesy of Exposition Art Blog