The Center for Land Use Interpretation Newsletter

Sun Tunnels


2787A crowd assembled at Sun Tunnels when the public was invited to meet Nancy Holt there on October 20, 2012, as part of the opening celebration for her exhibit Nancy Holt: Sightlines at the Utah Museum of Fine Art. CLUI photo

SUN TUNNELS, ANOTHER icon of land art, is in the northwest corner of Utah, on an empty plain that feels miles away from anything. The piece is composed of four large concrete tubes whose axis converge at, and diverge from, a central point. If you stand at that point, in the middle, where there is a small concrete pad, you look out through the tubes in four different directions. One direction is where the sun rises on the summer solstice; another, 180 degrees away, is where the sun sets on the solstice. Another points to where the sun rises on the winter solstice; and another points to where the sun sets on that day.

Nancy Holt, the artist who made the piece in 1976, often uses line of sight tubes in her work. She calls them “locators.” It’s a way of framing space and directing attention. Peering through a line of sight tube cuts off everything that surrounds you, focusing all your vision on the object at the end of the perceptual tunnel. One of the effects of looking through these tubes that she has observed is the collapsing of the distance between the viewer and the object being viewed–it brings the distant object closer without magnifying optics and in a more intimate way. Conversely, too, it takes the viewer out into the space being observed, through the tube.

The big tubes at Sun Tunnels are more than line of sight tubes, or locators–they are a sculptural embodiment of the annual cycle of the planet in the solar system. The X spot that they mark is a cosmological point of convergence, from which one can look out at the universe (confirmed by the fact that USGS topographical map for the quadrant covering the site marks them on the map as “Astronomical Observation Tunnels”). Though heavy and large, the piece is really immaterial, since it is about relationships between the viewer, the surroundings, and the cosmos.

The site, curiously, is a kind of terrestrial fulcrum as well. It is the middle one in a line of three pieces of land owned by Holt. Five miles east is a former gravel pit, and six miles west she owns the crest of a butte. One site digs into the ground, the other rises above it, with the axis point–the Sun Tunnels site–in the plane plain in the middle. This may be an accident, or not, since the land was acquired by her around the same time. Either way, it is a fact, and adds a terrestrial dimension to this perceptual nidus.

Standing in the middle of this observatory, the view extends in the space between the tubes as well. Looking in these gaps, one imagines, rather than a cosmological connectivity, the continuity of places of the ground. If this is the center, for the moment, what then is around us, and beyond the limits of our sight, in the terrestrial horizons between the tubes? Does their meaning shift when perceived through the context of the Sun Tunnels? Here are a few possibilities:

2788CLUI photoRoot Cellar as Unoccupied Subterranean Void
Distance from Sun Tunnels 3.5 miles N by NW at a bearing of 326 degrees.
The nearest building to Sun Tunnels is an old root cellar at the old town site of Lucin. If Sun Tunnels is a kind of observatory, the root cellar could be considered as a terranium, an observatory of the solid mass of the ground.

2789CLUI photoLucin Airstrip
Distance from Sun Tunnels 4.5 miles N at a heading of 12 degrees.
The nearest occupied structure to Sun Tunnels and the only habitation for miles around is the home of a man named Ivo Zdarsky. Zdarsky is the inventor of an aircraft propeller, the Ivoprop. In 1984, he built an airplane from scratch using a Trabant car engine, and flew it 30 miles from his former home in Czechoslovakia to Austria to escape communism. Now he lives here alone in a hangar. In the context of Sun Tunnels, he could be imagined as a kind of Icarus, a sky flyer coming down to earth in this empty plain.


2790CLUI photoWilliams Federal #1 Oil Well
Distance from Sun Tunnels 11.7 miles E at a heading of 110.4 degrees.
There is an old oil well near Sun Tunnels, a deep shaft into the ground, capped with a steel pole. The road that provides access to Sun Tunnels dead-ends at the well. 53 miles away E by NE, with little but the Great Salt Lake between them, is Spiral Jetty, a work of land art made by Nancy Holt’s husband, Robert Smithson, which also was built at a remote location that was accessible because of a road made for an oil well.