Art
The Story behind “Sun Tunnels,” Nancy Holt’s Land Art Masterpiece
Nancy Holt,  Sun Tunnels , at the Great Basin Desert, Utah, 1973-76. © Holt/Smithson Foundation and Dia Art Foundation/Licensed by VAGA at ARS, New York. Photo by ZCZ Films/James Fox. Courtesy of the Holt/Smithson Foundation.

Nancy Holt, Sun Tunnels , at the Great Basin Desert, Utah, 1973-76. © Holt/Smithson Foundation and Dia Art Foundation/Licensed by VAGA at ARS, New York. Photo by ZCZ Films/James Fox. Courtesy of the Holt/Smithson Foundation.

In 1976, after three years of planning and multiple treks to the desert bordering Utah and Nevada, finished what was to become her defining work. By this time, the sculptor and filmmaker had some well-received shows to her name; a famous, recently deceased husband whose career had largely overshadowed her own; and 40 acres of land in Utah’s Great Basin Desert. Sun Tunnels (1973–76) is composed of four massive cylindrical, concrete forms—large enough for a viewer to walk inside without ducking—positioned in a cross formation on the desert’s cracked clay floor. The project had been initiated shortly before Holt’s partner, , died in a freak airplane crash in Texas. In the subsequent years, his widow spent countless secluded months in the Southwest, experimenting, scouting sites, and establishing her own personal relationship with the land.
Sun Tunnels stands with Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970)and his friend (and rival) ’s Double Negative (1969–70)as among the most important contributions to the movement. Smithson’s iconic earthwork, a giant basalt helix built into the edge of Utah’s Great Salt Lake, was created with the expectation that it will ultimately recede back into the water. The monumental work therefore manifests the indomitable entropic forces the artist explored throughout his career.
Nancy Holt, Sun Tunnels, at the Great Basin Desert, Utah, 1973-76. © Holt/Smithson Foundation and Dia Art Foundation/Licensed by VAGA at ARS, New York. Courtesy of the Holt/Smithson Foundation.

Nancy Holt, Sun Tunnels, at the Great Basin Desert, Utah, 1973-76. © Holt/Smithson Foundation and Dia Art Foundation/Licensed by VAGA at ARS, New York. Courtesy of the Holt/Smithson Foundation.

Meanwhile, Double Negative—two massive trenches cut into a mesa in the Nevada Desertcarries with it an implicit violence. As Heizer himself described it, “Double Negative is really a scar of a kind. An intrusion of nature, an assault of some sort. It’s as though a surgeon took an exploratory cut of a mesa to show its innards.” Sun Tunnels, however, neither degenerates nor threatens; instead, it foregrounds the body as the primary site of the piece’s activation.
Like Spiral Jetty and Double Negative, Sun Tunnels stands as a massive testament to human will. The work’s orientation is precisely calibrated so that its four tubes frame the sun on the horizon at the summer and winter solstices, creating a kind of lens that engulfs the body. Small holes in the tubes, modeled on the position of four constellations, throw scattered discs of light onto the viewer nestled inside.
Nancy Holt,  Sun Tunnels , at the Great Basin Desert, Utah, 1973-76. © Holt/Smithson Foundation and Dia Art Foundation/Licensed by VAGA at ARS, New York. Courtesy of the Holt/Smithson Foundation.

Nancy Holt, Sun Tunnels , at the Great Basin Desert, Utah, 1973-76. © Holt/Smithson Foundation and Dia Art Foundation/Licensed by VAGA at ARS, New York. Courtesy of the Holt/Smithson Foundation.

Creating the work entailed hauling tons of concrete into the desert, working with engineers, astrologists, contractors, and crane operators. Unlike other land art artists, who tended to hide all traces of their work’s construction, Holt meticulously documented this labor in extensive notes, as well as a film of the same name. “The workers seemed to care about the work they were doing for me,” she observed in one unpublished typewritten account. “The filming in both 16mm and still photography gave them an increased consciousness of their acts.”
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Yet the resulting installation, for all its virtuosic elegance, serves as a slight diversion from Holt’s greater innovation, revealed only after a succession of interviews with Holt’s peers and scholars of her work.
Shortly after the work’s completion, Holt took artist and filmmaker and media activist DeeDee Halleck to see the site. As Halleck recalled, “We arrived there near sunset, and we all three slept out in the tunnels—three different tunnels.” She continued, “We woke up really early, at sunrise, and I remember thinking how there was so much life.”
Nancy Holt,  Sun Tunnels , at the Great Basin Desert, Utah, 1973-76. © Holt/Smithson Foundation and Dia Art Foundation/Licensed by VAGA at ARS, New York. Courtesy of the Holt/Smithson Foundation.

Nancy Holt, Sun Tunnels , at the Great Basin Desert, Utah, 1973-76. © Holt/Smithson Foundation and Dia Art Foundation/Licensed by VAGA at ARS, New York. Courtesy of the Holt/Smithson Foundation.

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 2014 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.
Cat Kron

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels align to frame the sun on the horizon at the winter and summer equinoxes; the tunnels align at the winter and summer solstices. The text has been updated to reflect this change.