Nancy Holt – Wistman’s wood

nancy-holt-trailmakers-7_0Nancy Holt Trailmakers (7) 1969
Series of twenty inkjet prints on archival rag paper

Nancy Holt’s expedition with Robert Smithson to the UK in 1969 was seen as private to their development when Holt looked back on the experience in an interview with Tate magazine at the time of her retrospective exhibition at the Haunch of Venison gallery in London in 2012.  The relationship between her land art and her photography is brought together in the works made during this visit, including her beautiful series ‘Trailmakers’ a set of photos recording a route through a landscape.

Nancy Holt in Wistman’s Wood, Dartmoor, photographed by Robert Smithson 1969

Robert Smithson in Wistman’s Wood, Dartmoor, photographed by Nancy Holt 1969

This work was co-incidental with a discovery in Wistman’s wood of an archetype of ancient woodland – it led to two fine portraits and her first ‘buried poem’.  The idea of the buried poem, the words unspoken and personal to a particular individual, recorded photographically and left as a thought in our heads, a series of questions – was that poem ever spoken or read? Is it still there – This is very gripping and immediately made me want to go and visit the wood.

‘Nancy Holt
We went to Dartmoor National Park, where I made several works, including the series of photographs Trail Markers. ………….. At one point we reached Wistman’s Wood, an ancient woodland of stunted oaks. I believe the name Wistman originated from the dialect “Wisht”, meaning eerie, haunted or enchanted. (By the way, ‘Holt’ in old English means ‘a wood’.) I remember that the ground was strewn with large rocks covered with many different types of mosses and lichens, out of which arose these strange twisted trees. We were stunned by this place. I did my first Buried Poem #1 (for Robert Smithson) piece there. A site evokes a person, and I bury a poem for that person and later the person a booklet including maps, detailed directions and a list of equipment (such as a compass and shovel) in order to find it. To me, Wistman’s Wood conjured up Bob’s persona in a striking way…’


Wistman’s Wood 1969 – Site of buried poem #1 (for Robert Smithson) by Nancy Holt


Above: Hydra’s head (1974) concrete, water, earth. Niagara River, Lewiston, New York by Nancy Holt

Douglas Fogle writes:

‘….in Hydra’s Head (1974), a site specific installation of of round concrete tubes sunk into the ground and filled with water. Installed into the banks of the Niagara River in Lewiston, New York, this series of three foot deep concrete pools are arranged in the vague shape of the constellation Hydra.  Inspired by the saying of the Seneca Indians of New York that ‘pools of water are the eyes of the earth,’ `Hydra’s Head becomes a kind of geo-camera that reflects the image of the cosmos, as the sun, the moon, and the stars find themselves reflected in the surface of these watery pools which themselves act as a set of primordial optical lenses’

This homage to water as light transmitter and to the cultural position of water in the landscape is a key one.  It does make me want to make something next time I am in the woods, to place water as a reflector into different environments.


Above: From Western Graveyards (1968) by Nancy Holt

In a similar way the western graveyards records the isolation of space in a cultural landscape, the desire of all of us to claim or plot and thereby own or more spiritually, become part of the landscape.


Four film stills from Nancy Holt’s Pine Barrens 1975

I need to watch the moving image work of Nancy Holt and Robert Smithson

Nancy Holt
Bob researched in advance some of the places he wanted to explore. At the time we were both interested in the ideas about the Picturesque put forward by the Reverend William Gilpin, as well as Uvedale Price’s Essay on the Picturesque 1794. Price, like Capability Brown, understood how to work with the landscape – to work as nature’s agent.’

The connection with the picturesque is made explicit by Nancy Holt. The picturesque and the modern sensibility is another place to explore.


Fogle, D in Tufnel, B. (2012) Nancy Holt Photoworks London: Haunch of Venison

Grant, S. and Holt, N. (2012) Notes from an ancient island. Tate Etc. Available [online]

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