Miriam Sagan on Nancy Holt

The great land artist Nancy Holt died earlier this month. Coincidentally, I’d been writing about her for a rather eccentric memoir piece I’ve been working on. Working title–“Geographic” as in the mental health slang phrase “pull a geographic.” (i.e. “Those junkies should have gone into rehab but instead they just pulled a geographic and left Brooklyn for Vermont, hoping it would work.”) The memoir is about my relationship to time and space.
So here, in honor of Nancy Holt:

I identified with Nancy Holt because she and I were both married to men named Robert who died young.
However, her husband was Robert Smithson.
Her work fascinated me because so much of it was about location.
We lived in the same town, knew people in common, but when I heard her lecture I sat in the back and was overcome with unaccustomed shyness as she signed a copy of her book.
I published poems about her but was too embarrassed to send them to her.
She seemed “real” in some kind of luminous way, although rationally I assumed she was quite ordinary in her daily life.
She was a tie to a mythic age of heroic artistic endeavor, but more than that, her art shocked me. I did not know that anyone could think like that (although it was a way I was perilously close to myself).
I walked in her piece Dark Star Park in suburbs outside of Washington. D.C. Although the site is about location in time, it also seemed to be about grief.
Each year we unwittingly pass the day of our deaths. And when young, passed dates we couldn’t yet see–anniversaries both ecstatic and abysmal.
I have never seen Holt’s iconic work, Sun Tunnels, although I was close. I was living in a tiny trailer out on the salt flats in Utah, in the abandoned Wendover air force base. Easy to say, but not that easy to do–scary, windy, desolate.
I shared this residency with the Center for Land Use Interpretation with a young photographer from East Berlin, call her “Vi.” We were glad of the company at night, both of us nervous.
A rainy day, creatively dry, east Nevada blacked-out for electrical work. We thought about heading to Sun Tunnels but somehow daunted ended up exploring mining roads and a redneck bar that Vi, no American, assumed would be fine. Which it surprisingly was. We drank cold coffee and when the lights came back on treated ourselves to a steak dinner in a casino.
A year later, we crossed paths for a minute–Vi, car packed, was leaving the residence as I arrived for a second stint.
I spent a week alone in the rattling wind. All fear had left me. I was calm and happy, in a direct confrontation with this world as it was. I looked at the sun too long and burned a retinal after image–a tiny image of the sun that projected itself everywhere I looked for over an hour.
Vi was headed for Sun Tunnels on her way back to Salt Lake, and home.