Nancy Holt Mechanisms of Perception Haunch of Venison

Nancy Holt

Review – Holt’s work ‘places emphasis on the mechanisms of perception, on ideas about place and time and consciousness, and in particular a profound sense of cosmic relativity.’ Whether or not she is a “photographer” or not, we are not sure, because she uses the camera to essentially have Land Art both ways: biodegradable, temporary, influenced by external factors like weather and the sun’s light; but, due to the camera’s input, also a permanent record of an instant- which is a handy thing to have if you want to put on a gallery show. This strikes me rather as an adulteration of Land Art, although whether an idea of purity can be applied to Land Art I am not so sure about. So when we are told that ‘Holt’s stunning images of her iconic sculpture, the Sun Tunnels (1973-1976), for example, [photographs looking down a hollow pipe in a desert, with the angle of shadow changing throughout the day, and eventually appearing at the end of the pipe] inform our understanding of this important work in concert with the site itself’, we should probably consider that true, but cannot help but question the role of photography itself in this. Is this the light from the sun on that day in the 1970s? No, it is a chemical reaction to that light, the effects of which we are seeing as a photograph. How is that different from the brain’s chemical reaction to that light? I don’t know.

What I do know, however, is that most of the interest in photography, for me, comes from these sorts of questions about the medium itself and, ideally, combining this with the interest of the object, shot well. It elevates a moment that would flash by in a frame to a foreign prominence. There is a wonderful series of photographs of a American Football game on television, with the shutter speed around the same length of time, and slightly longer, a T.V. takes to emit a frame or two. The result is a wonderful exposing of our self-created illusions about fluid “real time” in television or cinema, as though made in anticipation of Deleuze’s look at Bergson in the Cinema books.

The problem, though, can be this very elevation- instant and easy- which can lead to the downfall of most photographs taken with an “artistic” motivation: more often than not I think photography leads its user into the trap of recording boring eccentric ephemera or tired coincidences that are not actually that exciting subjects. The miracle of photography basically leads to an over-abundance of that miracle. So we get things like Holt’s series of photographs of hiking trail markers on Dartmoor, or roughshod graves in America’s deserts that have been moved by weather and shifting sand.

My basic problem with this exhibition: its paradox assures that it can never take on an interest beyond the interest inherent in photography. The American graves are wonderful and interesting because they shift, are life and death, continue to do so, and have a whole context behind them that is chopped off by the camera’s narrow lens. They lose something beautiful when they lose that combination of ephemerality and eternity, like Land Art. They need to shift. Photography, however, lionises a single moment. What we are left with is a series of ghosts of changes, looking at it one way, or a photograph who’s interest is that it draws attention to the interesting nature of photography. But, I would suggest, all photographs have this interest within them: just go on Facebook now and look at old pictures of your best friend, or even odder, pictures of someone before you met them. Photoworks is an interesting pop-philosophy exercise, but that doesn’t make it standout. Words: Jack Castle ©ArtLyst 2012