Life and Death in the Sun Tunnels

We arrived just before sunset. The clouds were beginning to roll in from the east, illuminating the western half of the sky in a bright orange that radiated from the setting sun. The drive was barren. 60 miles or so on an empty county road, followed by another 10-ish miles on an empty dirt road. There were very few other travelers, no cities, and no homes, save for a few scattered trailer homes in the empty desert.

The landscape is sterile. The only vegetation for miles is a seemingly boundless field of small shrubs, barely a foot high, that encompassed us along our trek. No trees, no stereotypical desert cacti, no nothing.

Yet, in the middle of this empty desert, there sits something of a concrete oasis. No, there’s no water, palm trees, or lush grasslands like one would imagine, but instead there are four massive concrete tubes aligned in an angled cross formation. There is no explanation of what these tubes are, or why they’re here. They just simply are.

My friend Tani approaches Sun Tunnels.

They seem almost dystopian. Like a relic from an ancient empire of generations past. As though these are the only remnants from a once thriving civilization that now rests beneath the cracked sands of the desert.

The truth, however, is much less mystifying. These giant concrete tubes are an art piece, entitled Sun Tunnels, created in 1974 by Nancy Holt. Holt was a pioneer in the art world, being a founding member in the land art movement. It’s a style of art that emphasized and played with landscapes and environments rather than canvasses, sculptures, or art galleries.

Nancy Holt, photographed at Sun Tunnels in the late ’70s. Photo courtesy of the Holt-Smithson Foundation.

Land art, as a movement, is hard to understand without first seeing the work that belongs to it. One of the more famous pieces in the movement is Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, a manmade rock formation that juts out into the Great Salt Lake, before curling in on itself in a spiral formation. There’s also Michael Hezier’s Double Negative, which is essentially a massive straight line cut through the cliffs of an empty desert landscape.

Left: Spiral Jetty by Robert Smithson. Image courtesy of the Holt-Smithson Foundation. — Right: Double Negative by Michael Hezier. Image courtesy of the Jolly Contrarian.

All three works I’ve shown so far have been placed in the deserts of the Western United States. While that wasn’t a prerequisite to creating land art, it was a deliberate choice by all three artists to do their most prolific work in the empty landscapes of the American West.

Land art, as a movement, was born in the United States. It was born in these deserts. While the movement is defined by its lack of canvases, the desert’s landscape acts as a kind of natural blank canvas. The emptiness of the Utah desert is what inspired Holt to create Sun Tunnels.

Nancy Holt’s preliminary sketches and photographs for Sun Tunnels. Image courtesy of the Holt-Smithson Foundation.

The tunnels utilize the land as both the focal point and periphery of the art. The tubes are aligned so as to frame the sun as it rises and sets on the winter and summer solstices. The annual occurrences draw flocks of people out to watch the sun rise and set through the Sun Tunnels, some of whom camp out overnight for days to get a truer experience.

My friends and I didn’t plan to be at the Sun Tunnels on either solstice. Instead, we had hastily scrapped together a plan to show up there in mid-April, and camp inside the tunnels overnight. It was our spring break, and we didn’t want to be stuck in Colorado. So, we made the nine hour drive from Fort Collins, through Wyoming and Utah, to the Sun Tunnels.

We were the only people there, and a storm was blowing in. As the clouds rolled over us, so too did colder temperatures and slight drizzles of rain. We quickly got our sleeping bags and pillows out of the car, and unpacked our portable campfire. We started up a fire, and surrounded by nothing but arid terrain and howling wind, began to eat together.

Right to left: Evan, myself, and Tani eating dinner at the Sun Tunnels.

It was a primal experience. Something basic. Sitting around a fire with friends, chatting while indulging in one of life’s most simple delights. It also allowed for a thorough examination of the piece itself, and the land surrounding it. As the light grey clouds enveloped the landscape, they provided an even clearer canvas to admire the tubes on.

Not only that, but it showed a side of the desert that very few ever get to see: a rainstorm. It added another primal element to Holt’s piece that doesn’t present itself very often. Holt, like most other land artists, didn’t consider her work to be the whole piece.

While the tunnels themselves are certainly part of the work, Holt also considered the surrounding landscape, the weather, and the cosmos to be part of the art too. “Actually, choosing these sites as places for people to experience and see, that’s the work.” Holt said in a 2007 interview.

So being alone in an empty landscape, with drizzles of rain and spurts of snow, alone with the tunnels, provided a great spot for truly inspecting the art, which brought upon inspection of the environment and the self.

The tunnels themselves are massive. Nine feet tall and 18 feet long each. They have holes drilled in them that, on each solstice, align with the stars that make up four constellations: Draco, Perseus, Columba, and Capricorn. The tunnels act as cosmic picture frames, but only at two specific points on two specific days each year.

The interior of one of the Sun Tunnels. Image courtesy of the Holt-Smithson Foundation.

The drive to Sun Tunnels provides for unfettered, panoramic views of the landscape around you. The wide open desert, the scattered mountain ranges, and vast sky are all on full display. Yet, once you arrive, Sun Tunnels cuts the majority of that view off from you. The individual tunnels act almost as telescopes, singling out your attention to four distinct points, each encircled within the concrete of the art itself.

This framing, the deliberate enclosures the tunnels create, provided an opportunity for reflection on my own relationship with the environment around me. Do I truly appreciate and interact with the world around me? Do I stay restrained to the concrete tubes of my own world? Do I force myself to sit inside those tubes, further restricting my ability to forge a relationship with the land around me?

But shortly after this introspection began, the sun set behind the distant mountains, and the artistic allure of the sun tunnels began to fade into instinctual habit. The wind picked up and the temperature steadily dropped, prompting my friends and I to put out the campfire and set up camp within our respective tunnels. The curiosity I had about the art and the landscape quickly turned to paranoia and fear as the landscape fell dark. The desert became a pitch black void, where the only noise was the howling wind and the pitter patter of the occasional spat of rain.

This was another side of Sun Tunnels that most don’t get to experience. Plenty have camped at Sun Tunnels, but I can’t imagine many felt the fear I did. Holt considered the environment itself a part of her art, and the natural environment has a lot of room for pure, primal fear. This was an experience full of that emotion. I feared the unknown of the landscape around me. I feared the coyotes and other animals that wandered the desert. I feared the cold, and the wind that whipped across my body. I feared the rain and snow, and the flash flooding that occurs in the empty desert. I felt that true, deep fear that I hadn’t felt before. The fear of the true unknown.

A time lapse at Sun Tunnels, photographed by Nancy Holt. Image courtesy of the Holt-Smithson Foundation.

It was in this fear, inside a giant concrete tube, that I had a great realization: I no longer fear death.

I doubt that Nancy Holt ever thought someone would have such a thought inside this art piece. I reckon I’m probably the first to have such a revelation here. But what sitting inside the Sun Tunnels in the dead of night made me realize is that mortality, and by extension the existence of a giant, dark void, is an inevitability. That, even as I found shelter inside a massive concrete tube, I had no control over the environment around me. It was black, and would remain that way no matter what I did or how I felt. I realized that rather than fearing or worrying about what lay in the darkness, I should embrace the moment. I should feel the warmth of my sleeping bag, the relative safety of the tunnel, and enjoy the experience for what it was.

It added a final, deepest part of the Sun Tunnels experience. I had gone from admiring the art itself, to using the art as a lens through which to view the environment around it, to using the art as a lens through which to examine and dissect myself. Sun Tunnels created an emotion in me no other art has — one of deep, true revelation and growth.

So, after setting my fear aside, I curled myself up inside my sleeping bag and drifted off to sleep. I didn’t dream, nor did I wake up at any point in the night. It was a peaceful slumber.

But as morning arrived, the sun rose, and its light was diffused by the lingering grey clouds that blanketed the sky. The land was colored in a soft white, rather than the explosive reds and yellows that often engulf the desert sky. It was still cold and windy, and it was nearly unbearable to leave my sleeping bag for more than a few moments at a time. I awoke my friends, who were still asleep, and we all quickly filed out of our tunnels and into the car.

Neither of them had the personal experience I had. They had just enjoyed the ride out, and the food we’d eaten at dinner. My friends hadn’t particularly enjoyed the art, viewing it as something of a roadside oddity rather than a place for introspection and environmental wonder. I guess that their views of the art are just as valid as mine, if not moreso. They appreciated Sun Tunnels as it was, not as what they could turn it into.

Regardless of our interpretations, we hopped back on the dirt road, and left Sun Tunnels just as we had found it: empty, alone, and waiting for its next visitors.

hockey fan, hiker, political wannabe, and journalism student at colorado state university

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