A Not-So-Sunny Excursion to Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels

Guest blogger: Ali Mitchell, UMFA intern, U of U senior art history major

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In April, the UMFA led an adventure that demonstrated exactly what makes our new ARTLandish: Land Art, Landscape, and the Environment program so unique and engaging. What we envisioned as a fun-filled day of art activities and desert lounging at Nancy’s Holt’s Sun Tunnels (located far from any paved road in Utah’s West desert) became a more adventurous undertaking than anyone foresaw. It was a totally different experience than you might expect to have with a museum: one that ended up being challenging yet spectacular.

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The beachy, beautiful, blue-sky day that our expedition was planned around gave way to some foreboding clouds as staff and art lovers arrived after an epic four-hour trek to the site. When experiencing Land art, you better be prepared for anything—and you definitely better bring a coat! The cool breeze and soft drizzle led us to take shelter inside the tunnels while we listened to lectures by Executive Director, Gretchen Dietrich, and Assistant Curator of Public Programs and Statewide Outreach, Annie Burbidge Ream, who were both appropriately clad in a thick layer of raingear and mud. We learned about the history of the site and the theory of place while enjoying the artwork as a shelter from the rain. The massive concrete tunnels have been some of Utah’s major Land artworks since their creation in 1976. We learned that Nancy’s Holt’s work is important to us as both a beautiful way to experience sculpture and the western landscape, as well as a landmark in the movement of artwork outside of the gallery.

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But our good luck didn’t last long as nature herself seemed intent on showing us all the site had to offer. We were met with a tremendous cloudburst, and the massive open plains that make the site so beautiful instantly flooded; the soft dirt liquefied under our feet, and worse, our vehicles. One by one our cars drifted and sank in the mud as we attempted a mad dash back to the paved road. We mustered our strength and a whopping sense of humor and adventure in our attempt to one-by-one push the 10 beached cars back out of the mud. After a tremendous effort we succeeded, mud covered and laughing, to form a caravan that ended at the Cowboy Bar in nearby Montello, Nevada.

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At the end of the long day, our trip was the last thing that anyone would relate to a museum. It was dirty, loud, wet, and extremely fun. Land art has always been invested in breaking out of the gallery, and our Sun Tunnels Community Meet-up was the perfect example. The experience of the Sun Tunnels started from the second we left home and lasted through the mud-covered pushing, yelling, and digging that it took to get back again. That is what Land art is about, and in hosting the ARTLandish series the UMFA is invested in asking questions about what it means to be a museum, what it means to experience an artwork, and how we can uniquely engage our community with the amazing artworks that surround us.

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So join us for our upcoming (warmer and drier) ARTLandish programming which can be found on our ARTLandish Page or visit our Sun Tunnels Page for directions and travel tips for your own Land art adventure. We’ll also be hosting another community meet-up—this time at Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty—October 1!


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