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Art to Measure the Universe

IN some opinions, the 1960s marked a crisis point for modern art. Contemporary art became less and less accessible to the general public, being created only in response to other works of art. Traditional modern art that had been placed in a public context, such as Alexander Calder's work, only reflected a fairly narrow, specific aesthetic. Certain artists, discouraged by this movement toward the arcane that only museums and galleries could appreciate, began exploring other directions in their work. Almost in unconscious confrontation artists turned to using the earth and actual landscape as their canvas.

In an effort to emphasize this desire for a different, broader direction for their art, artists created projects that combined art with function. This was a rejection of the ingrained vocabulary of minimal and conceptual art for one of ultimate public accessibility. What has evolved since the '60s is that today a good piece of public art must reflect a practical as well as aesthetic function. This practical, functional element can be as simple as a bench or as sophisticated as land reclamation.

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Nancy Holt, a New York artist trained in the sciences, has always been concerned with issues of perception in her work on both micro and macro levels. By emphasizing various modes of perception in the context of earthly phenomena, Holt has become one of the most excellent of this new breed of public artists. Her work stresses the sense of perception - saving it from being a lost function.

Holt's first major work to be involved with astronomical perceptions was ``Sun Tunnels'' (1973-76), created in the Utah desert on a parcel of land owned by the artist. This site-specific work consists of four large walk-through concrete pipes positioned in an open X form. The open ends of the pipes correspond to the rising and setting points of the sun at both summer and winter solstices.

The top half of each tunnel has holes in the configuration of different constellations. The ``holes'' of the constellations vary in diameter according to the magnitude of the stars. Light from the sun, a large star itself, is reflected through the holes, creating celestial patterns inside the pipes which allow the visitors to invert their normal ground-sky reference by walking on the heavens.

At Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, Holt worked in one of the few places where magnetic and astronomical north are aligned. She developed a work, ``Star Crossed'' (1979-80), consistently stressing the various perceptual realities at the site. A small concrete tunnel aligned north-south crosses over a larger pipe aligned east-west. The small tunnel looks into an oval reflecting pond.

When one enters the large tunnel and views the pond through the small tunnel, it appears perfectly round and reflects a celestial vision - inverting the viewer's perceptual experience and emphasizing mankind's relationship with the heavens.

Holt's most impressive completed work is a cosmologically inspired traffic island park in Rosslyn, Virginia, just outside Washington. This site, ``Dark Star Park,'' functions very efficiently as a public space, providing passage and seating for workers in the nearby office buildings. It consists of several large gunite spheres, some placed in reflecting ponds, sculptural pole-like elements, grass berms, meandering paths, and seating areas.

The spheres, as the park's name implies, are reminiscent of uninhabitable planetoids - once-bright stars that have fallen to Earth. A visitor to this site would notice several asphalt shadows echoing the spheres and poles. On Aug. 1, at approximately 9:32 a.m., the actual sun shadows align with these asphalt patterns to mark the historical date in 1860 when that exact parcel of land was purchased by William Henry Ross, the founder of Rosslyn. Through this astronomical mechanism, Holt has fused historical time with the cyclical time of the sun, perhaps reminding us of the inevitable future of our bright important sun star.

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At present, Holt is working with the Hackensack Meadowlands Development Commission, in New Jersey, to create one of the world's largest art projects. An unlikely collaboration between such a bureaucratic entity, an energy group, a landscape architect, astro-archaeologists, and an artist demonstrates the strong desire of Holt and other public artists to tackle projects of a greater magnitude.

Holt has been commissioned to design an environmental artwork out of one of four landfills to be closed in the next few years. Using the vocabulary of landfill technology, Holt has designed a modern-day Stonehenge, providing a venue where one can celebrate celestial events.

Her proposal includes a viewing station that traces the moon's orbit through its 18.6-year cycle and specific areas that underscore the solstices and equinoxes. Holt refers to this ambitious project as similar to ``measuring the universe.''

Public art is called such for its emphasis and need to involve the public in its process of being created - from the first moment of inception (perhaps in a town meeting or advisory committee) through artist selection and actual execution of the work. It is a contradiction in direction right from the beginning. Art production, which is usually a private process for its creator, ephemeral at best, is exposed by a truly open democratic bureaucratic process.

Nancy Holt's work echoes this contradiction. Holt is a master artist in regard to the public process, and her many successful public projects attest to this fact. Her work, however, and that of other public artists, once completed and accepted, betray none of the complicated and necessary process of creation.

These works stand on their own and very often are not even identified as works of art but works that reflect their function. With all of her emphasis on exposing various kinds of systems, Holt strongly believes that her work ``exists in and of itself: People do not need to know my involvement with all these processes when they see the work.''

Holt belies her talent by being able to bring these oppositions of practical and ephemeral elements together so convincingly. In fact, one could say that her interest in our solar system reflects her interest in a very intimate one. ``When I say my work is an externalization of my own inner reality, I mean I'm giving back to people through art what they already have in them.''

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