Nancy Holt’s 30 Below, 1979 Lake Placid, NY

For far too long, my understanding of Nancy Holt’s work was confined to her films and her most famous creation, Sun Tunnels (1973-76), in the Great Basin Desert of Utah. This is the one from the art history books, the four large concrete tubes arranged in an open X configuration. Each tunnel is aligned with the sunrise and sunset during the summer and winter solstices, and their interiors are pierced with holes that map constellations. This alignment transforms the tunnels into a celestial observatory, connecting the viewer to the vastness of the universe while grounding them in the specific geographic location. The air is saturated with radiant hues that appear to shimmer around you, making it hard to tell which direction is up, around, or out. It necessitates a level of letting go, but if you can, it is nearly hallucinatory.

This past week, I visited the Lake Placid Olympic Ski Jumping Complex to watch Olympic hopefuls take off the 100-meter jumps. Right down the road is Holt’s incredible work, 30 Below, 1979, created for the 1980 Winter Olympics. This imposing sculpture is a 30-foot-tall tower made from 10,000 locally sourced red bricks and stands as a testament to her unique way of blending art with the environment and the cosmos. 

30 Below isn’t just a tower—it’s an experience. It feels like something left behind from another time, a remnant or trace of a stone tower or an old grain silo, linking it to historical agrarian architecture. Surrounding the tower are two mounds of dirt covered in grass and wildflowers, which Holt designed to look like brick retaining walls. These mounds enhance the sculpture’s earthy feel and make it seem like it’s partly buried, emphasizing its connection to the ground.

The tower perfectly aligns with the cardinal directions: the openings at the top and base run north to south, while the side openings run east to west, all pointing towards the North Star. This setup grounds the sculpture in the physical world and links it to the stars, creating a bridge between earth and sky. The piece aligns with the sunrises and sunsets during the equinoxes, solstices, and the moon.

Holt once said, “I am putting ‘centers of the world’ wherever I go,” which captures her goal with 30 Below. She wanted to anchor our perspective to the cardinal points, making the tower a way to connect with the natural world around us. Stepping into the center of the ring, the work reminds you of James Turrell’s “Skyspaces” in the way that it possesses no boundaries and that its bright blue light extends towards an unseen horizon. Both are spaces that encourage silence. 

When you step inside the tower, it’s like looking through the wrong end of a telescope. The sky and clouds appear distant and dreamy, turning the tower into a place to contemplate nature. Up in the deep northern mountains, there were no planes to interrupt our view; the clouds were in no hurry to drift away. Instead, they seemed to pull up a seat and watch us as we watched them. The more you put into the work, the longer I stayed and stared, the more I became attuned to the subtle shifts in blue above me, the sheer lack of ambient sounds, and the pure peace of everything sitting still. This acoustic effect makes you more aware of your own presence, every movement, and every sound you make, heightening your sensory experience. 

One of the coolest things about 30 Below is how it interacts with time. All of the works commissioned for the 1980 Winter Olympics were meant to be temporary; however, Holt’s work just kind of stayed. Its sturdy materials have made it a permanent part of the landscape, standing high above the Lake Placid Community Garden, across the street from the North Elba Cemetery. On the tall grass around it, the tower’s design casts shadows that act like a giant sundial, marking the passage of time. 

A winter in Lake Placid, NY, is a picturesque yet intense experience marked by heavy snowfall and frigid temperatures. Holt’s name for the work, 30 Below, is playful, a nod to both the height of the tower and the freezing cold that Lake Placid can reach during the winter. It also hints that just maybe the tower juts up 30 feet, but that the structure might continue underground the same distance. 

Despite her significant contributions, Holt’s recognition was often overshadowed by her male peers. The art world of the 1960s and 70s was predominantly male-dominated, and women artists struggled to gain the same level of acknowledgment and opportunities as their male counterparts. Women often faced a lack of funding due to the belief that they were incapable of managing large-scale installations or the heavy machinery needed for earthworks. This was made more ridiculous when you consider that male artists almost always hired laborers to operate the necessary equipment, such as tractors and dump trucks, for their projects.

Holt’s role was often seen as secondary to that of her husband. Smithson’s untimely death in 1973 left a void in the Land Art movement, and Holt dedicated a significant portion of her life to preserving his legacy. Holt’s early career involved documenting the otherwise ephemeral works of Smithson and other male artists, which, while important, positioned her more as an assistant than an equal collaborator in the eyes of the art world. (Even in the very last days of her life, she devoted hours to editing video of Smithson’s work, Amarillo Ramp, 1973. While this effort was crucial, it further obscured her own achievements. 

Visiting 30 Below marks the beginning of many more Holt adventures for me. Her work encapsulates her dedication to integrating art with natural phenomena and her innovative approach to sculpture. Holt invites us to see the world differently, engage more deeply, and recognize our place within nature and time. Her work continues to inspire contemporary artists, reminding us of the profound connections between art, nature, and the cosmos.