Utah’s remote, dazzling spectacle of art shines 2 days each year
Jul 2, 2018, 10:15 PM | Updated: May 21, 2023, 4:03 pm
LUCIN, Box Elder County — It happens two days each year at one of the most remote places in Utah — and it begins in the dark.
On the longest day of the year in the summer — and on the shortest day in the winter — crowds are in place before dawn, waiting for a unique spectacle dozens of miles from the nearest town.
Sometimes people get a little crazy. Often they are reverent and awestruck. They are there to see a world-renowned work of art that was designed to be especially dazzling on the summer and winter solstices.
On June 21, as a glow slowly brightened on the eastern horizon, it revealed a small community of vehicles, tents and people, waiting for the morning edition of the biannual show. Spread out on the barren desert floor are four mysterious concrete tubes arranged in an “X” configuration that on one diagonal spans 86 linear feet.
Each tube is a tunnel with an inner diameter of 8 feet — invitingly large for those who choose to walk inside. In a place where light is a playful thing, those who enter before sunrise sometimes bring their own illumination to make patterns on the concrete.
It’s called Sun Tunnels, an iconic work of modern art created in the 1970s by sculptor Nancy Holt, who died in 2014.
“I’d always thought I wanted to come out here,” said Sandra Burch of Declo, Idaho, as she stood waiting just before sunrise on the summer solstice. “This is kind of a bucket-list thing.”
One visitor scented up the early morning atmosphere by lighting ceremonial incense on the hood of his car. Another visitor, Matt Stanley, of Draper, compared the scene to a famous counterculture festival that takes place every summer in Nevada.
“My wife and I, we’ve gone to Burning Man a few times,” Stanley said. “This is very similar.”
On the summer solstice the sun rises on the horizon at the northernmost point of the solar cycle. At sunrise and sunset on that day, the sun touches the horizon at a point perfectly centered on an imaginary line drawn through two of the tunnels. A visitor standing in the right place sees the two tunnels as concentric circles with the rising sun precisely in the middle.
It’s just the way Holt designed it.
“It’s oriented to the rising and setting of the sun on the summer solstice and on the winter solstice,” said art historian Hikmet Sidney Loe. “So it’s really beautiful and it really gives us a sense of how the planet turns, how the sun rotates.”
The result is that on two days each year, morning and evening, Holt’s artwork gets trampled by visitors.
“I think that she would have loved it,” said Lisa Le Feuvre, executive director of the Holt-Smithson Foundation, an organization dedicated to appreciation and preservation of works by Holt and her late husband, sculptor Robert Smithson.
Just after the solstice sunrise, Josh McGlamery, of Ogden, stood between two tunnels twirling a long pole with burning torches at each end.
“There’s an energetic vortex here,” McGlamery said, punctuating his explanation by making a loud sucking noise. “Swirling, swirling energy.”
It was the third time McGlamery has greeted the sun ritualistically at Sun Tunnels. “There’s no religion,” he said. “But spirituality? Yeah. If you’re going to call it religion, you can call it, like, pagan-heathen stuff.”
Tom Martinelli, who worked as Nancy Holt’s assistant and collaborator for several years, said she would be pleased by the variety of interesting and sometimes eccentric people who show up on the solstices.
“Druids, UFO people, you know, I think one time a circus showed up here,” Martinelli said. “All different belief systems can find a way to be part of this.”
“What I love about Sun Tunnels is the way it gets you to look harder and think deeper about the world around you,” Le Feuvre said. “I think she would be so happy to see these people here, looking, thinking and being more aware of their place in the world.”
In the early 1970s, Holt and her husband were part of a movement known as “Earthworks” or “Environmental Art.”
“Nancy Holt and Robert Smithson,” said Le Feuvre, “are two artists who completely recalibrated the possibilities of art.”
Smithson died in a plane crash in 1973, shortly after he created Utah’s other world-renowned earthwork — the Spiral Jetty. His widow finished Sun Tunnels in 1976. That left Utah with two iconic, important works of modern art.
“Oh, absolutely important,” said Loe who has studied and written about the significance of both famous sculptures. “Really, quite honestly, I consider Spiral Jetty and Sun Tunnels to be equal.”
Some visitors aren’t so respectful of the art. The inner walls of the four tunnels have dark spiralling lines that were not part of Holt’s design. According to Low, visitors caused the marks by firing bullets into the tunnels. When they strike the concrete walls, bullets spiral around inside, forming a pattern resembling the grooves of a rifle barrel.
Most visitors, though — art-lovers or not — seem glad to be at Sun Tunnels on one of the two days each year when they really shine.
“It’s a new beginning,” McGlamery said, “like, uh, kind of a solar new year.”
“It’s wonderful,” Burch said. “It’s out in the middle of nowhere and who would think that someone would put this out here?”
It takes a commitment to see the Sun Tunnels. The sculpture is about 50 miles straight west of the Great Salt Lake, not far from the Nevada border. Visitors can drive around the lake in either direction, clockwise through Wendover or counterclockwise through Snowville. Either way the drive takes well over three hours from downtown Salt Lake City.
The next time around, art lovers, druids and other solstice seekers should plan to bring warm clothing. The winter solstice is on Dec. 21, 2018.
Holt’s admirers, though, say the sculpture is dazzling any day of the year. Many think it’s best on the days when no one else is there.