The artist Nancy Holt is at center of Light and Language. Nancy Holt (1938-2014) was an artist who rethought the limits and the possibilities of art. She was a key member of the Earth, Land and Conceptual art movements, an important female voice in the groundbreaking 1960s and 70s New York art scene. For five decades she asked difficult questions about how we might try to understand our place in the world. Holt’s art continues to inspire and recalibrate the possibilities of what art can be, and where it can be found.
Light and Language invites the artists A.K. Burns, Matthew Day Jackson, Dennis McNulty, Charlotte Moth, and Katie Paterson to explore ideas of light and language alongside Nancy Holt. This is the first time Holt’s work has been seen with twenty-first-century artists drawing from her legacies. The exhibition takes place at Lismore Castle Arts, one of Ireland’s leading spaces for experimental contemporary art. It stretches from Lismore Castle’s gallery spaces, through the castle gardens, into the surrounding everyday life of the town of Lismore.
The six artists in Light and Language pay attention to the structures and perceptions of light and language. At the center is Holt’s room-sized installation Electrical System (1982), presented for the first time in more than three decades. Formed of over one-hundred glowing lightbulbs, Electrical System is an example of Holt’s innovative ‘system sculptures’ that make the facts of architecture visible. Holt described that these “sculptures are exposed fragments of vast hidden systems, they are part of open-ended systems, part of the world.”
Nancy Holt constantly unpacked systems to reveal how they construct perception. A selection of her early concrete poetry from the late 1960s reveals her interest in the structures of language, as do her 1974 video collaborations with Richard Serra - Boomerang and Match Match their Courage. Broadcast live on a TV station in Amarillo, Texas, Holt's words are fed back to her through headphones with a one-second delay creating “a world of double reflections and refractions” where “words become like things.”
The photographic series Trail Markers (1969) documents a subjective journey across the high moor of Dartmoor National Park in England following a wayfinding system, and Preparatory Drawing of “Sun Tunnels” (1975) map out the cardinal directions of Holt’s iconic earthwork Sun Tunnels (1973-76). Within the castle grounds and Lismore town are Holt’s Locators that, as she described, are “literally seeing devices” simultaneously focusing, extending, and showing the limits of vision.
The five artists joining Nancy Holt in Light and Language, likewise open questions about perception. Working with sound, sculpture, words and light, each artist has chosen works for the exhibition they feel resonate with their fascinations for Holt’s ideas and artworks.
A series of Katie Paterson’s (b. 1981, Scotland) Ideas thread their way through the gallery. These are short sentences made of silver that allude to potential artworks – in this case, each involving light. “The universe’s lights switched off one by one” and “All the shadow at this moment carved onto the earth” resonate with Holt’s interest in light and shadow, and the dialogues between natural and electric illumination.
Dennis McNulty (b. 1970, Ireland) also works with language, his sculptures having made use of both the distorted sounds from Boomerang and song lyrics from Bruce Springsteen’s 1982 Atlantic City. Like Holt, Springsteen grew up in New Jersey, and both maintained an interest in their suburban beginnings. For Light and Language McNulty will link Lismore Castle to suburban Dublin, layering one site on top of another through a live broadcast.
Matthew Day Jackson’s (b. 1974, USA) Commissioned Family Photo (2013) comprises eighty-two photographs taken with a camera capable of capturing over a million frames per second. It was designed to record explosions and shockwaves from nuclear detonations; the artist and his family are the only human beings ever to have been photographed by this camera.
A.K. Burns (b. 1975, USA) presents an evocative film of a total solar eclipse, shot on 16 mm in an open field in Nebraska in 2017. The work is projected on a large angled screen, amplifying the residue of heavy film grain as well as the entanglement of astronomical phenomena, technology, and representation. In the castle grounds The Dispossessed (2018) stand face-to-face, a pair of sculptures made from mangled and painted chain-link fencing used to mark out site boundaries.
Charlotte Moth (b. 1978, England) also pays attention to boundaries, creating two works especially for Light and Language. On the castle grounds a disc sculpture, Blue reflecting the greens (2020). reflecting sunlight hugs a moss covered boundary wall. In the gallery, Millefleur (Lismore) fills a circular tower with hundreds of paper leaves.