The concrete tunnels provided shade, creating shelters from which to watch the sun transform the landscape. But Holt didn’t want to linger at Sun Tunnels—she wanted to show her guests the rest of the land. This quick jaunt turned into an increasingly desperate slog through the desert after the three got lost at midday, leading to Holt’s brief hospitalization from dehydration.
The artist’s impulse to guide viewers through the land is telling. It echoes a later account from art historian Alena J. Williams of her own pilgrimage in 2007 to Sun Tunnels, a trip she planned with the artist while researching her book Nancy Holt: Sightlines, which remains the definitive text on Holt’s work. “At first I thought we were just going to go see Sun Tunnels,” Williams recalled. “Then I discovered that she wanted to visit these other sites in the area, which she had purchased in the 1970s with the initial intention of creating new works.” Holt later expanded on their meaning: “Actually, choosing these sites as places for people to experience and see, that’s the work.” Positing a view as an artwork was a radically new conception of what an artwork could be. Holt’s extended engagement with the land led her to the conclusion that sculptural frameworks were unnecessary. The sites were the piece.
If the land is the work, can one register it without having sat in the cool concrete tunnels in the middle of the desert, watching the sunlight cast raking beams like stars across one’s limbs? The artist’s gambit is strikingly fragile. Sun Tunnels is predicated on devotees journeying to the desert to experience it in person. These four tunnels serve as a focal point for the land, suggesting Holt’s ultimate proposition: You are the aperture.