The artist Nancy Holt brought the sky down to earth, composing her pieces of equal parts concrete and constellation. Most often categorized as land art, her pieces were immense—sculptures and earthworks to be walked through—but this designation misses half the equation. Holt’s work also distilled images of the sky.
Holt’s best-known piece, Sun Tunnels, is comprised of four large concrete tubes arranged in an X-formation deep in the desert of Utah. She bored holes in the sides of the tunnels, arranging them so that the desert sun projects a spectre of a familiar constellation—Draco, Perseus, Columbia, or Capricorn—onto the interior of each. In an act of inversion, the constellations vanish from the tunnels at night, returning to a sky far from light pollution. The tunnels, shady by day, go truly dark.
Another of Holt’s pieces, the only one I’ve been able to visit, is called Dark Star Park. Set in an entirely different environment than Sun Tunnels, Dark Star Park was installed on the site of an abandoned gas station in Rosslyn, Virginia. Rosslyn looks like a city, but it’s referred to as an “urban village,” characterized by a relative scarcity of residential space compared to the algal bloom of office towers, which are taller than any across the Potomac in D.C. Known primarily as a crossroads of several major highways, as a subway stop, and as the location of the parking garage where Bob Woodward met on six different nights with Deep Throat, Rosslyn is essentially a financial district that’s been excised from D.C. and dropped into Virginia. It’s a counterintuitive location for an artwork intended to be so slow and contemplative. Nancy Holt claimed that “a park was definitely needed there in Rosslyn because they had built all these concrete and glass buildings in a flurry. Rosslyn was the fastest-growing metropolitan area in the country at the time,” which was 1979 if she was referring to the same year the park was commissioned.1 She completed it in 1984, a city park without much of a city.
The park is enclosed on its north side by an office tower, and on its west side by a grassy ridge. If you don’t step across the sidewalk at the south or east edges of the park, you can enter through a tunnel where the ridge is tallest and grassiest. Walking into the park feels like you fell into some strange impact crater where the offending meteor managed to shard into perfect fifths. These fifths are the park’s primary feature: spherical concrete sculptures meant to resemble extinguished stars. Each of the five spheres has a small tunnel bored through it, at such an angle that looking through offers a view of at least one other sphere. Maybe this was the spheres’ cause of death: holes bored straight through where their cores should be.
The path that leads into the park from the entrance tunnel splits and wraps around the northern section, where three of the spheres perch over circular reflecting pools. One sphere, supported on a pedestal, floats in the middle of its own pool, while the other two alight on the edge of the other. Reflecting pools show up again and again in Holt’s sculptures. She called them “the eyes of the earth.” In Dark Star Park they cast a rippling aura onto the undersides of the spheres, or on a still day, they catch a skyfull of tree branches and office windows and hold it out to you. In this section of the park, the path is enclosed by a low wall, allowing a visitor to stop and sit at any point in their walk. On my last visit, the only other people I’ve seen in the park were sitting on this wall. One of them, a woman in business attire, scrolled on her phone while the other, a bearded man in a hoodie and an overstuffed JanSport, watched me roam around the park. Narrow, faded orange leaves fluttered down from the trees planted around the perimeter. Some of these, as well as a pigeon feather and the cotton of my gloves, caught in the rough surfaces of the spheres.
The paths continue past the pools to where North Lynn Street and Fairfax Drive cut through the park, allowing the rush of traffic a presence in the otherwise still space. The two roads are bisected by a narrow spit of concrete, where a jogger in vivid pink spandex ran the length, unfazed by cars at either of their elbows. The paths winding through the park turn into crosswalks when they meet the road, continuing across the shoulder to a narrow traffic island. Here, the remaining two spheres rest directly on the pavement. Here, across the Potomac from Washington D.C., the spheres serve as a kind of alternative memorial. Every year at 9:32 a.m. on August 1, the shadows line up perfectly for one full minute with metal ovals stretched along the ground behind them, commemorating the purchase of the land that became Rosslyn on the same day in 1860. In addition to the contractors, landscape architects, and property developers Holt brought in to complete the park, her team included a single astrophysicist who worked to get the shadows to conform to the moment.2 Holt wanted to overlap “historical time with the cyclical time of the sun,” but 9:32 a.m. arose from a particularity of her own: morning was her favorite time of day.
This event serves as the main attraction of the park, which by my limited observation is ignored the rest of the year. A documentary called Art in the Public Eye: the Making of Dark Star Park features interviews with several people who visit the park. One woman who visits on August 1 conceded that she was interested in the park’s historical significance, but that August 1 was also her birthday. She says she visited because she was “part of the universe and part of time.” Another man, dressed in jogging gear, claims that he’s interested “in all things druidic,” a word that juts out3 in this setting of mundane office work, exercise, and modernity. On any day except August 1, this section of the park is not as interesting or as comfortable as the grassier side back across the street, so that was where I lingered most on my visit. The reflecting pools were dry, eddies of dead leaves trailed across the black varnish, so I sat on the edge of one with my boots extended toward the drain in the center. Definitions of art, not that I’m trying to get into it, often include something about functionality, usefulness or more often uselessness. Although Dark Star Park does something that parks don’t usually do—sync to astronomical movements at significant moments—it also does some of the things parks are supposed to do. It offers a small amount of green space, for enjoyment or recreation (I saw someone jogging up the median), and it gives people a place to go when they are not either working, trying to catch a train, or eating: the only other activities seemingly permissible in Rosslyn. The park does not really create space for people to gather. There are no barbecue grills, pavilions, or picnic tables. Reflection, both in the pools and in the individual visitor, eclipses these more social features—making it, if parks are meant to be social, kind of an anti-park.
Moreso than office towers or distinct audiences, the most essential feature of Dark Star Park having been situated outdoors may be the presence of the sky. Any gallery space large enough to encapsulate all the park’s landscaping features would still impose a ceiling, leaving the reflecting pools pallid and the shadows meaningless. I’m reminded of a quote I found in the book One Place After Another, a critical history of site-specific art by the curator Miwon Kwon, which refers to the sculptor Henry Moore’s instruction on the importance of the sky:
To display sculpture to its best advantage outdoors, it must be set so that it relates to the sky rather than to trees, a house, people, or other aspects of its surroundings. Only the sky, miles away, allows us to contrast infinity with reality, and so we are able to discover the sculptor’s inner scale without comparison.4
The sky is the ultimate extent of scale observable without some kind of special equipment. It’s the largest thing we can look at. Both times I have visited Dark Star Park the sky has been overcast—the reflecting pools full of gray water and shadows, looking like oversized coins rubbed smooth. The opacity can hinder your finding whatever it is you’re supposed to be looking for. Every child knows the formless stream of cumulus clouds is fuel for the machine of imagination. I can only imagine what the reflecting pools hold at night when Rosslyn empties out and crowds cross the Key Bridge into D.C. or head west toward Court House into hubs of bars and restaurants. Dead stars in the dead of winter, fallen to a plot of land where light pollution obscures anything but the constant stream of aircraft overhead.
Even though the park invites the public in, it fragments them into individuals. Visitors are meant to meander the park’s winding paths at their own pace, to stare at their reflections in the water, and to pay attention to their own presences in the space. It’s only on August 1 that the park regroups people in larger contexts of history and the cosmos, connecting them to each other and to people who may not be present. Even though I like all the visual tricks of the park, especially the reflecting pools (which seem to be the focus of this consideration), I see them as the cutting instruments of isolation. A viewer standing on the edge of a reflecting pool is not just framed in the circular area of the water’s surface but also grafted onto the sky. It’s paradoxical that the overall effect of the isolating features of the park is, for some people, a feeling of belonging—but only the sky, like Moore said, allows us to “contrast infinity with reality.”5
1. The quote comes from the book Nancy Holt: Sightlines edited by Alena J. Williams. The book also notes that, in addition to public sculptures like Dark Star Park, Nancy Holt also made art that was resolutely private. Her Buried Poems was a series of poems written for a specific person she was close to, which she then placed in a capsule and buried in a place that reminded her of them. Five poems were written in total, and the five people were each given a map. She chose the burial sites based on environmental conditions that evoked the sense of the person, not on historical significance in their relationship. The idea, I imagine, was that the person would be able to stand in the place and see themselves the way Holt saw them. Nobody else, it seems, has ever read these poems. No record or representation of them exists anywhere I can find it, and I really like that.↩
2. As she was designing the park, Holt went to the Naval Observatory in D.C. to get a formula for the shadow alignment. Unable to read its code herself, she passed it to the astrophysicist, who positioned the concrete orbs accordingly. Eighteen years after the park’s installation, Holt had to summon the astrophysicist again. A wobble in the earth’s axis had shaken the shadows slightly loose. The astrophysicist came to Rosslyn, recalculated the placement of spheres both earthly and celestial, and then repositioned the ones they could. Five years of cranes and crews later, the shadows once again fell as they should. But if even shadows eventually decay, imagine a Washington metro area long after astrophysicists and office workers and essayists stop coming around. Everything rests slightly oblong, slack-jawed shadows creeping across the lawns.↩
3. Once I attended a private event at Druid Hill Park in Baltimore. That day, after getting off of my brunch shift at a kitschy southwestern restaurant, I biked back to the apartment I shared with my partner at the time. When I got there they had already left; their brother was getting married and I imagined the family had a lot to do. So I changed into the cheap blue suit I had bought specifically for this event and put on the tie my partner had lent me since I didn’t have any of those either. The wedding was being held at the Maryland Zoo, and even though I lived almost next door to Druid Hill Park I hadn’t known it encompassed a zoo. The park is immense, and you can miss a lot in 745 acres of greenspace. When I had been there before, I mostly wandered around the edge of Druid Lake, a large reservoir in the park’s southern corner. My only strong memory from these visits is of coming across a shabby, derelict cottage somewhere near the lake. Its shutters had been drawn, shedding ancient teal paint, and the narrow entryway to the door was framed by a latticework choked with dead vines. I stared for what seemed like a very long time at the door before being called back from it by someone I was walking with, and have thought about it occasionally since. Now I can’t find any evidence online of its existence. I’ve tried all the search terms, gone through the photo collections. Nothing—except, maybe, a Baltimore Sun article from the 90’s claiming that the city was eyeing a few vacant cottages in Druid Hill Park for renovation as concession stands. When I imagine being handed a hotdog through the window of something that had once looked like the Brothers Grimm invented it, and then even in its degenerated state held me at the door by some kind of inexplicable charm, I feel something close to, but not exactly, despair. But I’m guessing that plan never came to fruition.
On this trip to the park, I was looking for a building called Mansion House, which was founded as a private residence by some very wealthy former Revolutionary War officer at the beginning of the 1800’s but was then converted to a public pavilion and eventually the administrative building for the zoo. I parked on the road and walked up to the building, where my partner’s father was standing in a small crowd on the gargantuan steps. He smiled through his white beard and his tan suit hid a faint, nearly monochromatic checked pattern. He greeted me and I stood with him on the steps while other relations lined up near us to pose for group photos. Eventually he said “looks like we’re moving inside” and we climbed the rest of the stairs onto the covered porch.
Inside, the walls were a banana cream color and a table had been set up to hold a guest book and flowers. In one corner, an attendant in Maryland Zoo-embossed polo shirt stood next to a play fence surrounding a kind of giant rabbit easily mistakable for a bloodhound. I walked to my left through the immense hallway and turned the corner, where a series of tables had been set up. Past these, rows of chairs had been arranged facing a low stage with a podium and some wreaths set up behind it. I sat next to an older couple whose name tags revealed them to be the parents of one of my partner’s friends, chatting with them briefly before the ceremony started. The bride was a member of the Bahá’í religion, and a Bahá’í minister officiated, giving some background information about their faith before beginning. After this, during the dinner, my partner’s father gave a toast to his son, the groom, which was not something I had ever seen anyone do before. It seemed like something that only happened in movies, but he was raising a glass of champagne in one hand and holding a microphone to his lips with the other. Whatever he had said caused my partner’s mother, who was no longer married to him, to rush over and kiss him briefly, and my partner, who was seated next to me, yelped with a kind of gleeful surprise. “It’s just… seeing my parents…” they started to explain before forgetting to finish.
Even though I knew what it was like for a family to fall apart I did not know what it was like for all of its members to still be around. What I realize only now is that this might be what it looks like to be extended the conditional invitation of family. When I was too busy trying to avoid detection at dinners, they were trying to figure out who it was that might be joining them. The specific insecurities I had around this family—not knowing which side of the plate the fork goes on, not knowing anything about the inner workings of the State Department, not having been to Europe—the insecurities which kept me largely quiet—all these pale in comparison to my failure to meet an interested party halfway. It’s a failure of empathy in part, but it’s the imagined inferiority of which I’m most ashamed. The point is, I want to know how private I can get when I’m thinking about public space. One answer is: just a little more private than dinner conversation.
4. In the southwestern restaurant, I made frequent runs from my station at the in-house taco stand back to the main kitchen, always trying to fend off impending shortages of cilantro or sriracha mayo. The kitchen was a cacophonous and dingy room of stainless steel where I would rifle through the refrigerators for what I needed, trying to take up as little space as possible. On one of these runs, in the lull between lunch and dinner, I noticed someone had installed a realistic-looking print of the sky behind the glass of the panel light above my head.↩
5. According to Holt, the need to look at the sky was a part of her “inner reality,” which she was trying to make external for other people through her work. She believed this was a universal human need, and this macroscopic feeling of belonging is what spirituality and wisdom are supposed to be about: the ability to position yourself in such an enormous and ongoing narrative that you no longer feel alone or insignificant, and maybe more importantly, you no longer feel like the center of it. I’m part of the universe and part of time, but this doesn’t comfort me. The idea registers as somewhat agoraphobic, actually: being one mind adrift in the universe, a chaotic and entropic place full of distances and dust. I’m part of other systems like capitalism and empire too. I contribute to what constrains me. My head is always in the clouds. I thought for a long time that agoraphobia refers only to a fear of wide open space—the opposite of claustrophobia—but it actually refers to a fear of any space in which someone cannot escape. “Inner realities” are often such places: mires of unwanted thoughts, recurring nightmares, ruminations, worst-case scenarios…
“You need to look at the sky,” Holt is saying, taking me by the shoulders, tilting me backward, carefully, gently—so that my eyes ascend but my feet don’t slide out from under me.