Film

A Transportive Film Series Spotlights Nancy Holt and Robert Smithson

The films created by the legendary artists move beyond pure documentation, adding layers of context and revealing insights into their respective practices.

Still from Sun Tunnels (1978), dir. Nancy Holt, digitized 16 mm film, color, sound, 00:26:31 (© Holt/Smithson Foundation, licensed by VAGA at ARS, New York, distributed by Electronic Arts Intermix, New York; all images courtesy the Holt/Smithson Foundation)

In the canons of multiple major art movements of the 20th century — including Land and Conceptual Art — Nancy Holt (1938–2014) and Robert Smithson (1938–1973) loom large. There’s an almost mythical aura that surrounds the couple’s well known earthworks, such as Holt’s “Sun Tunnels” (1973-76) and Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” (1970), due in no small part to their remote locations. For many, these works are most immediately accessible via their eponymous documentaries. Holt and Smithson’s catalogue of films, made together and separately, move beyond pure documentation of these tricky-to-access-sites. Rather, the films exist as works unto themselves, adding layers of context and meaning for the earthworks while revealing insights into the artists’ respective processes.

Still from Spiral Jetty (1970), dir. Robert Smithson, digitized 16 mm film, color, sound, 00:35:00 (© Holt/Smithson Foundation, licensed by VAGA at ARS, New York, distributed by Electronic Arts Intermix, New York)

Cognizant of the fact that travel — for art or otherwise — may remain a distant prospect for some time, the Holt/Smithson Foundation has launched Friday Films, a transportive online film series that grants free access to a number of the two artists’ film and video works. Including films like Sun Tunnels (1978) and Spiral Jetty (1970), the series also presents the majority of Holt’s moving image works, including lesser-known titles such as the long-presumed lost Utah Sequences (1970), in addition to collaborative works she made with Smithson, like Swamp from 1971. In the latter, we follow Holt as she navigates a densely tangled thicket with only her Bolex camera and Smithson’s voice to guide her. (Hi-jinks and misdirection ensue.)

As Lisa Le Feuvre, Director of the Holt/Smithson Foundation, explained by email to Hyperallergic:

We wanted to take a journey — while we are not traveling beyond our own kitchens and bedrooms, that expansion of our horizons is important to find somewhere. We start in Utah, move from the vast expanse of the desert to the limits of a writing desk, then to New Jersey, on to New York City, and finally travel out west to Texas and California. We have also looked to layer ideas from one film to another, to open questions, and make links between different works.

Still from Pine Barrens (1975), dir. Nancy Holt, 16 mm film, color, sound, 00:30:34 (© Holt/Smithson Foundation, licensed by VAGA at ARS, New York, distributed by Electronic Arts Intermix, New York)

Next up in the series is Holt’s Pine Barrens (1975), screening May 8 via the Foundation’s Vimeo page. A dreamy travelogue of a film, Pine Barrens carries the viewer through the stark wilderness of the titular region of New Jersey. Footage of tawny fields dotted with green contrasts a vast blue-gray sky, as voiceover of Holt’s interviews with self-identified “pineys” (residents of this harsh terrain) scores the film. Their tales inflect the somewhat desolate landscape with meditations on what it takes to survive off the land. Rumors of the fabled “Jersey Devil” abound, as pineys offer stories that seek to account for unexplainable sounds and ghostly encounters.

What’s particularly thrilling about this film series is that it provides a rare level of insight into the artistic processes of these two eminent artists, adding greater dimension to their works in different media. Each Friday, viewers who would normally only encounter these works in a museum or gallery setting, or via an occasional art-house screening, can now watch, sit with, and reflect upon a novel work for a 24-hour period. Each screening is also preceded by an introduction from a foundation staffer or artist to lend further context to these revelatory films.

Still from East Coast/West Coast (1969), dirs. Nancy Holt and Robert Smithson, video, black and white, sound, 00:23:17 (© Holt/Smithson Foundation, Licensed by VAGA at ARS, New York, distributed by Electronic Arts Intermix and Video Data Bank)

Coming up after Pine Barrens, is East Coast/West Coast (1969), a film by Holt and Smithson in which the artists play the parts of “New York Conceptual artist” and “West Coast” free spirit, respectively. Their humorous debates unfold in none other than Joan Jonas’s apartment, and are captured on video by peter campus. “Conceptual art is bunk” quips Smithson at one point, convincingly playing the part of a naive drifter artist, while Holt, never missing a beat, challenges him, “If you can’t accept resistance… then maybe you should go back to LA.” The film, which screens May 15, offers a rare glimpse at a more casual, comedic side of these two pioneering artists, while poking fun at myriad art world stereotypes. (Holt’s sly smiles alone makes this one worth a watch.)

Screenings of Holt’s The Making of Amarillo Ramp (1973-2013) and her and Smithson’s Mono Lake (1968-2004) on May 22 and 29, respectively, will round out the series. The former began as a collaborative project to document what would become Smithson’s final earthwork on Tecovas Lake in Amarillo, Texas. Shortly after the project began, a tragic plane crash cut his life short, along with those of pilot Gale Ray Rogers and photographer Robert E. Curtin — less than a month after Smithson and Holt’s 10-year wedding anniversary. The final film, which Holt later edited and completed for the 2013 exhibition Robert Smithson in Texas, acts as an elegy for the late artist and pays tribute to a decade of their collaboration. It also documents Holt’s completion of the earthwork with fellow artist Richard Serra and gallerist Tony Shafrazi — all according to Smithson’s specifications. Mono Lake feels similarly nostalgic and follows the couple, along with artist Michael Heizer, as they travel to one of the most ancient alkaline lakes in the US, located just east of Yosemite National Park in California.

Still from The Making of Amarillo Ramp (1973/2013), dir. Nancy Holt, 16 mm film, color, sound, 00:31:52 (©Holt/Smithson Foundation, licensed by VAGA at ARS, New York, distributed by Electronic Arts Intermix)

As a special treat for viewers who may have missed earlier installments of the series — or those who may rightly want to sit with some of these works for just a little bit longer — the Holt/Smithson Foundation will also make all nine of the films in the series available online at once, starting June 5 at noon, Mountain Time, through noon on Monday, June 8. As Le Feuvre wisely counsels, “if you are planning a marathon back to back session it will take around four and a half hours, so make sure you start with enough time — and remember we are on Mountain Time, the time zone of our home base in New Mexico.”

Happy watching.

The Holt/Smithson Foundation’s Friday Films series continues with Pine Barrens (1975), dir. Nancy Holt. The film will be available for streaming on the foundation’s Vimeo for 24 hours from May 8, 12pm Mountain Time. For more details about the series, see the Holt/Smithson Foundation website

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