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Marking summer's arrival at the Sun Tunnels

Published June 22, 2011 6:07 pm

Art • Nancy Holt's masterwork draws sun worshippers who ushered in the longest day of the year.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Lucin • Retiree Henry J. Casolari has been greeting the summer solstice at Sun Tunnels for 20 years. It's toddler Tama Gaia's second trip to the desolate spot northwest of the Great Salt Lake to bear witness to the longest day of the year.

"We're going to try to keep that tradition going for Tama," says Mathu, the father of the 18-month-old boy. Why has he and his wife come six times? "It's the closest we've got to Stonehenge."

Casolari clearly delights in seeing the sun rise over a nipple-shaped mountain about 6:15 a.m., but jokes he only returns every year at dawn because "when you live in Montello, you look for something to do."

Montello, Nev., once a lively, proud railroad hamlet, is 50 miles from the site of the Sun Tunnels artwork. The town is a shadow of its former glory, with less than 200 residents.

Casolari serves as chaplain to Montello's fire department. "I'm no pagan!" he insists, despite his annual trek to this spot to greet the northern hemisphere's longest day.

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Land art, aligned with the heavens • Solstice, of course, is a day that prehistoric cultures built monumental observatories to predict, then celebrated as only pagans can. It marks the beginning of summer — the day the sun stops its apparent seasonal journey upwards in the sky. From now on, the days will gradually get shorter as Utah slides toward winter.

American artist Nancy Holt built the monumental, yet industrial-looking Sun Tunnels on 40 acres of desert about 10 miles outside the ghost town of Lucin to make a statement about humans' relationship to the Earth and the cosmos.

The artwork is composed of four 18-foot long, 9-feet wide concrete culverts. Two of the tunnels line up with the sunrise, another pair at sunset line up with the summer solstice. Then in winter, on the shortest day of the year, the pairs switch roles to do it again.

At midday, the darkened tubes of concrete become a planetarium of sorts, thanks to various-sized holes bored in their sides projecting representations of four constellations: Draco, Perseus, Columba and Capricorn. The holes throw spots of light, like stars, inside the dark tunnels.

It's all very clever, but few of the 30 or so shivering sun revellers seem to know much about Holt, her art or the solstice itself.

Yes, they know the Sun Tunnels' creator is the wife of "the guy who built the Spiral Jetty" — Robert Smithson, that is.

They know that the tunnels line up with the sunrise Tuesday and, vaguely, that the day marks the beginning of summer.

In short, though these technological-age humans delight in Holt and the cosmos's collaborative effort, they know far less about their world than the average pagan at England's Stonehenge.

As the crowd waits for the sun to pop out from behind the distant mountain range, Casolari jokes: "Suspense is in the air. Will it come up?" Not everyone laughs.

The way things work • Jeff Karrin drove his two sons and his daughter-in-law out from Sandy to witness summer's premiere. Although he maintains it's "just a fun, random thing to do," he, like everyone here, is more than a bit awed. "It kind of clues you into the way things work in the universe," Karrin says. "It tunes you in with the cosmos."

Daughter-in-law Samantha agrees: "It's something not everyone gets to do."

Heather Bailey and her boyfriend, William Santee, show up about an hour late for the sunrise after some bad road choices in the pre-dawn darkness. Santee has a midterm test at the University of Utah later Tuesday, so they can't stay to see the equally impressive solstice sunset. "We've definitely got to plan better next year," she says.

The couple spent the morning filming and photographing Bailey dancing in the tunnels.

In an example of art inspires art, Tom Bunn, of Hyrum, rode to Sun Tunnels on a motocycle to shoot his second straight time-lapse photography series of the sunrise. He'll post it on YouTube.

Gary Lee, of Clearfield, has parked his fifth-wheel trailer nearby. A member of the Utah chapter of the Burning Man group, he remembers when a splinter group called SynOrgy gathered at the tunnels to hail the solstice, before Holt, the artist, requested they stop their revelry.

"I think her biggest problem is they were building things to burn," he says. Still, he can't quite understand why Holt would mind the groups's creative response to her art that, to him, at least, is reverently in keeping with the tunnels' purpose.

Art gets physical • Mathu Gaia originally stumbled onto Sun Tunnels while attending a party nearby.

"I wondered why these big pipes were out here," he recalls. He understands the concept of the solstice and has a pretty good idea of what Holt was trying to achieve with the earth art, but he takes it a step farther.

"It's physical art," Gaia says.. "Each tunnel is fun to climb. Each tunnel presents it's own difficulty. If you really want to enjoy them you've got to get on top."

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