Nancy Holt and Robert Smithson are two key figures in earth, land, and conceptual art, pioneering some of the most influential site-specific installations and video work in the 20th century. As many galleries and museums are continuing to find new digital means of presenting their programme, the Holt/Smithson Foundation launched a weekly film programme of both artists’ most iconic films alongside lesser known works with each available for just 24 hours. Throughout the series we see each artist in a new light, framed around the early experimental energy of video art as they explore artistic collaboration and themes of presence and absence against the backdrop of their monumental earthworks.
Upon its release in the late 1960s, many American artists explored the artistic potential of commercial portable video equipment including Holt and Smithson. Known primarily for their site-specific work, neither artist saw video as simply a means of documentary, rather they advanced experimental approaches to the medium’s physical and practical concerns. Holt’s ‘Revolve’ (1977) stands out for its innovative use of multiple viewpoints, crops, and audio layering in an affecting interview with her close friend and filmmaker Dennis Wheeler about his leukaemia diagnosis. While Wheeler describes the “intense transformation” he experienced, Holt interweaves closely cropped shots from three different vantage points. Over the course of the video, it slowly transitions into longer, more contemplative views as he vividly recounts his deterioration. Sound furthers the film’s experimental nature as Holt strategically repeats his words at crucial moments throughout. Here, Holt’s techniques amplify and echo Wheeler’s experience.
Crucial to the programme is how it reminds us of Holt and Smithson’s frequent collaboration in works such as in ‘East Coast/West Coast’ (1968) and ‘Swamp’ (1971). In ‘East Coast/West Coast,’ narrative play and performance serve as the foundation for Holt and Smithson’s collaboration. The film opens with both artists seated in close friend and fellow artist Joan Jonas’s Grand Street studio. Holt embodies the persona of the cool, conceptual artist from New York and Smithson adopts the persona of a stereotypical free spirit from California. They go back and forth with one another in an improvised, and at times incredibly facetious, debate. Holt insists that he needs to “know a little bit about art to be an artist” while Smithson, slouched and casually smoking cigarette after cigarette, tells Holt to “just feel.” In contrast to this improvisation, in ‘Swamp,’ we follow Holt as she wades through the reeds of a New Jersey marsh. Our view is limited to the viewfinder of Holt’s Boltex camera held close to her chest while we hear Smithson, who remains off camera, carefully guide her through the dense swamp. Smithson seems at ease, assuring Holt that she can step forward while making sure to “avoid the stickers.” There is a humour here, with the presence and absence between the artists opening up larger questions of the medium itself.
While ‘Swamp’ transports us through an intimate, visceral exploration of the land and our relationships to others within it, Holt and Smithson’s more well-known films engage us with the vastness of geologic time, specifically in the American West. However, what strikes me most about the programme is that it complicates both artists’ well-accepted narratives as key figures in two revolutionary art movements— land and conceptual art. Both artists’ filmic experimentation is still largely underappreciated, and even then do we rarely see works beyond Holt’s ‘Sun Tunnels’ (1978) and Smithson’s ‘Spiral Jetty’ (1970). Although both films featured early on in the series, the Holt/Smithson Foundation allows us to dig deeper in the archives and explore lesser known works such as ‘The Making of Amarillo Ramp’ (1973/2013) and the presumed lost and now re-discovered ‘Utah Sequences’ (1970).
As lockdowns begin to ease, the importance of interconnectivity has never felt more crucial, whether that be in relation to one another or our situated experience of the land that surrounds us. In the introduction for the final film, artist Katrina Palmer reads a passage by Smithson that invokes a poignant reflection on our collective experience at home: “The site is a place where a piece should be but isn’t. The piece that should be there is now somewhere else, usually in a room. Actually everything that’s of any importance takes place outside the room. But the room reminds us of the limitations of our condition.”