SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — The past is continually present in the work of American artists Nancy Holt (1938-2014) and Robert Smithson (1938-1973). As a couple they traveled together for the better part of 10 years, each interpreting landscape through their own lens to engage site, perception, and time — yet they created separately. Holt/Smithson Foundation recently discovered of a short film by Holt, previously assumed to be lost. Shot at Rozel Point on Great Salt Lake in April 1970, Utah Sequences provides intimate views of the region that Smithson chose for his monumental earthwork “Spiral Jetty,” though that work is conspicuously absent from the film. Utah Sequences, now showing at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, situates Holt at the vanguard of phenomenological investigations.
Holt’s practice consistently returns to translations of place, employing various optical devices. In this 10-minute silent montage, shot in 16mm color film, each segment trains on a minute aspect of Rozel Point. The focus on light as medium (which Holt returned to throughout her career) is immediately apparent. Objects glint and shine; the lake’s water undulates and glistens; salt sparkles on tumbleweed, rocks, and animal carcasses. All matter is treated equally on this lakebed known for its harsh conditions. Serene images give way to the frenzied progression of sheep. Cattle follow, vying for space among abandoned vehicles on the nearby road. Smithson and Gianfranco Gorgoni — hired to document Spiral Jetty during and after its completion — walk the narrow lane between the earthwork and nearby oil mining operations.
Smithson enacts a rare performative action at the film’s halfway point. An abandoned cabin comes into frame. In and around it lie bags and piles of loose, crushed mica. Smithson kicks a pile of the mineral on the ground, then releases the glittering substance from several bags onto a cement platform. Mica consumes the air in a material gesture, complimenting the sparkling salt seen earlier. This action, though, is disruptive: atmospheric changes become activated not by natural forces, but by Smithson’s erratic, frenzied actions.
Single images and horizontal scans comprise the majority of the film until it is almost over. Holt follows Virginia Dwan — Smithson’s gallerist and the couple’s occasional travel companion — as the group proceeds through a narrow, open-air wooden structure. Utah Sequences concludes with a shot of the unencumbered sky, then the walkway’s beams are exposed in progression, rendering the structure as minimalist sculpture. Returning to the same horizontal view of the walk, Dwan is no longer in view. Holt continues alone until a central beam blocks her path, ending the film.
Utah Sequences is purely Holt’s vision of place, unfolding through salient points of time. Her perceptual experience captures the intimacy of landscapes while recording the grander impact of its environment. These memories clearly kindled Holt’s imagination and enriched her artistic language, resulting in expanded approaches to activating light and engaging viewership.
Utah Sequences continues at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts (410 Campus Center Drive, Salt Lake City, UT) through August 2, 2020.
Film Clip from Nancy Holt, “Utah Sequences” (1970), 16 mm film transferred to digital file, color, silent, 9 minutes, 26 seconds (courtesy Holt/Smithson Foundation, © Holt/Smithson Foundation/licensed by VAGA at ARS, New York)