Facing the sun (tunnels)

Lindsay Costello reviews Thunderstruck Collective's exhibition of works made after a group pilgrimage to Nancy Holt's "Sun Tunnels."

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Installation view of black hole sun, featuring works by Katherine Spinella and John Whitten, Dr. Jessi DiTillio, and Michael E. Stephen. Image courtesy John Whitten.

Nancy Holt’s vision for Sun Tunnels dawned one day in the early 1970s while she watched the desert sun rise and set. To Holt, the American West was both a site and a concept, a vast space from which she could pull celestial forms toward earth. Installed in the Great Basin Desert in Utah, Holt’s monumental work is a poem of perception and time, land and sky, heaven and earth. Massive concrete cylinders arranged in a cross frame Earth’s great time-keeper, the sun. The group of cylinders aligns to center the sun on the horizon during summer and winter solstices. The hollow tunnel-cylinder forms are pierced with holes referencing specific constellations; shadows cast by the sun through these openings echo the earth’s rotations. 

Thunderstruck 2.0: black hole sun, an exhibition by Thunderstruck Collective on view at Carnation Contemporary until September 26, responds to Holt’s classic work. Thunderstruck Collective is a group of artists reflecting on land arts of the American West through what they describe as “collaborative engagements,” namely exhibitions and publications. The group includes members from throughout the region: Ashlin Aronin, Kristin Hough, Morgan Rosskopf, Katherine Spinella, Michael E. Stephen, and John Whitten. Thunderstruck  2.0: black hole sun, curated by Dr. Jessi DiTillio, is the collective’s second in a series of exhibitions sparked by visits to American West land art sites. This journey began with a visit to the Grand Basin Desert to see Sun Tunnels on the Winter Solstice; later, the group returned to the same space on the Summer Solstice with new members. 

It’s tempting to view Thunderstruck 2.0: black hole sun as a travel diary—a log of what the artists saw, and how they translated it. Perhaps this is one intention of the exhibition, at least on the surface, but the show also prompts questions moving beyond this purpose. Sun Tunnels, located in a broad desert, is at least 75 miles from any town with a population over 100. It’s a shrine to isolation and space and quiet reflection. How does the original artwork change when interpreted by a collective group? How do larger-than-life ideas of perception, time, landscape, and sunlight rely on human interaction? What new relationships between land and hand are formed in this collaboration? Thunderstruck 2.0: black hole sun explores these questions, balancing referential materiality and interplays of space and void with a joyous, playful style.

Nancy Holt, Sun Tunnels (1973–76). Concrete, steel, and earth, 9’ 3” x 68’ 6” x 53’. From the collection of Dia Art Foundation with support from Holt/Smithson Foundation, © Holt/Smithson Foundation and Dia Art Foundation, licensed by VAGA, New York.

The exhibition’s variation in material usage is quickly clear. Katherine Spinella and John Whitten’s C-Curve (2020) occupies the most space in the main gallery room, with blue memory foam arched over plastic armatures. Above, a wooden frame displays an HD video projection, an abstracted loop of concentric circles and textures. Michael E. Stephen’s Death Spiral (2021), installed in spiral formation on one wall, is composed of pulverized rocks from Spiral Jetty, Great Salt Lake salt, and dirt collected from Sun Tunnels, all cast into Monster in my Pocket Reaper collectibles. Another Stephen piece, Shine (2021), smiles brightly from a corner—it’s a Care Bear altered with a therapy lamp beaming from its stomach. 

Installed opposite Kristin Hough’s traditional acrylic on canvas series, Curtain-up (2021),  Jessi DiTillio’s Some Tunnels (2021) is a miniature reconstruction of Sun Tunnels in stoneware and site-sourced dirt. If you’re not dizzy yet, the material experimentation goes on: there’s John Whitten’s broody graphite drawings on black paper and Morgan Rosskopf’s hand-cut works on paper and dura-lar, along with a spellcasting salt of sand, ash, and poppy petals that was a group collaboration. Spinella and Whitten’s Little Pigeon (2021) is particularly beautiful, a tablet encased in bright blue clay displaying an HD video of sky and open road.

Despite the intensity of materials, I still note the show’s sense of balance. The gallery feels breathable. Dichotomies begin to emerge: soft foam and sharp rock, flatness and raised texture, tiny detail and wide surfaces. The references to toys help the exhibition avoid a bogged-down self-seriousness. 

Michael E. Stephen’s sense of humor in Shine (2021) and Death Spiral (2021) serves as a reminder that the Thunderstruck Collective works are, in part, representations of a group’s friendship. Perhaps this is one aspect of Thunderstruck’s re-envisioning of Sun Tunnels—they’ve added an everyday human-ness, with markers of childhood nostalgia, creature comforts like memory foam, and an array of textures with which the hand yearns to interact.

John Whitten, Katherine Spinella, Dr. Jessi DiTillio, and Michael E. Stephen. Mooning Nancy, (2021). HD Video on monitor & spellcasting salt on acrylic. Salt ingredients: Himalayan Pink Salt, Pink Bath Salt, Bonneville Salt Flat Salt, Black Lava Salt, Charcoal, Bourbon, Sand from Sun Tunnels, Burnt Wood from Sun Tunnels, Iré Ayé, Ori, Afoché, Frankincense, Bergamot, Rock from Spiral Jetty, Glacier Water, Cayenne, MoonPie Fur, Palm Fronds, The Last Orchid Flower, Rosemary, Dragon, The Egg of DGAF, Crystals, Crushed Quartz, Ash and Smoke of the CBD Baby, Chenille Firetail, Toenail of Fran, Critical Mass, Poppy Petals + Magic.

One of the exhibition’s most challenging works is hidden behind a curtain, in a small space toward the back of the gallery. In Backscatter (2021), Ashlin Aronin recorded fluctuating magnetic fields and gestures—specifically, the movements of Thunderstruck members within the cylinder forms of Sun Tunnels—via a logging device. Aronin then envisioned this data as comet trail-esque light and sonified the data with a metallic synthesizer. Aronin’s sound-and-light installation also includes modulated recordings of wind at the Sun Tunnels site. In the dim, blacklit space, streams of trailing light morph and scatter along the walls, while droning sound pulsates all around me. 

Two of Morgan Rosskopf’s mixed media works, Your Moon In My Sky (2021) and Sand That Moves / Strong Will-ed (2021) are installed with Aronin’s work. The interplay of Aronin’s light projections and Rosskopf’s hand-cut paper creates layers of shadow and a dizzying, optical-illusion impact. I think of perception, but this is far from Nancy Holt’s reverential interest in ways of seeing celestial bodies. In Aronin and Rosskopf’s work, perception is skewed, digitized, distorted, and mutated.

Michael E. Stephen, Shine (2021). Altered Kenner Care Bear plush (1983) & therapy lamp looped on time intervals (18 sec. On / 21 min. Off). Dimensions variable. Interacting with Dr. Jessi DiTillio, Some Tunnels (2021). Stoneware, dirt from Wendover, UT. 24” x 24’ x 36”. Image courtesy John Whitten.

Thunderstruck 2.0: black hole sun begins to unpack my original wonderings—the impact of interpretation on land art, the group’s new relationships to Western landscape, their ideas of perception—and leaves other questions open-ended. I want to know about the emotional, visceral experience of these land art journeys, moving beyond the use of site-specific materials and video documentation toward something more ambiguous. At times, aspects of the show feel like inside stories from a closed-off friendship; more viewer-inclusive formats would work well to combat that in future exhibitions. For instance, the immersive feeling of Aronin and Rosskopf’s curtained installation space fostered a sense of viewer inclusion; perhaps a performance would work, too. 

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This is not to say Thunderstruck 2.0: black hole sun isn’t successful; in fact, I think it accomplishes exactly what it means to do. The exhibition, inspired by a journey to see Sun Tunnels, is also a journey in itself. It’s part of a series, created by a collective in flux, changing and developing over time. It doesn’t need to answer every question, because it is still learning about the experience of land art. I hope Thunderstruck Collective continues to invite the viewer along for the ride.

Thunderstruck 2.0: black hole sun is on view at Carnation Contemporary September 11-26, 2021.

About the author

Lindsay Costello is an experimental artist and writer in Portland, Oregon, with an academic background in textile research at the Oregon College of Art and Craft. Her critical writing can also be read at Hyperallergic, Art Papers, Art Practical, 60 Inch Center, this is tomorrow, and Textile: Cloth and Culture, among other places. She is the founder of plant poetics, an herbalism project, and soft surface, a digital poetry journal/residency. She is the co-founder of Critical Viewing, an aggregate of art community happenings in the Pacific NorthwestHer artistic practice centers magic, ecology, and folkways in social practice, writing, sculpture, and installation.

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