On August 1 at 9:32 a.m., the shadows in Rosslyn’s Dark Star Park — cast by concrete spheres and metal poles — will align with tracks that have been laid on the ground, as they do every year on this date. This year, they will draw a crowd uniquely attuned to the vision of Nancy Holt, the land artist who designed the park, installed in 1984. Holt, who died in 2014, once said that the alignment, which commemorates the day on which William Henry Ross purchased the land that would become Rosslyn, integrates “historical time” with “cyclical, universal time.” But for Holt, this was merely a steppingstone to a more elusive kind of time: one that, were she alive, she might recognize in these days of lockdown.
“I’m concerned with that kind of natural time, or cyclical time, because it’s closer to what I’m really interested in, which is no time,” she explained in a 1993 interview. “The time of the sun — natural time — it’s closer to that kind of timeless state. It’s not clock time. It’s not our busy, worldly time.”
Holt’s quest for timelessness is even more apparent in “Sun Tunnels,” structures in Utah’s Great Basin Desert, 40 miles from the nearest town. Dark Star Park, by contrast, wraps around a monotonous office building housing a personal injury law firm and HR staffing company. It bends to the curves of the nearby highway. Even on a Saturday morning during the pandemic, the stream of cars rushing by is unrelenting.
On roads and in hallways and cubicles around the park, time is broken up and optimized: personal time, commute time, office time. At its most corporate and utilitarian, the park provides a convenient spot to spend a work lunch hour.
These days, though, Holt’s park, with its orbs resembling celestial bodies, its dark pools of water, and its meandering pathways, feels less like a dreamy retreat from Rosslyn’s corporate activity than a natural extension of a covid-19 world, in which emptied buildings are more like decorative sculptures, and once-lively business districts succumb to listlessness.
Holt nudges visitors toward a timeless state by redirecting our attention. Peering through the smaller of two tunnels — one of a pair of culvert-like structures in the park — you might think you see nothing. An imposing sphere eclipses the view, leaving only a moon-like crescent of park landscape visible. But the sphere, too, is the view. Its shadows change color and position as the sun and clouds move overhead.
When looking at the five spheres, the park’s name conjures cosmic bodies: retired moons; fallen stars; tiny, forgotten planets. But Holt has said they could be anything. On a recent sweltering morning, the sandpaper-like spheres look as if they might have simply rolled off the buildings around them, like beads of giant, concrete perspiration. Two are more that six feet across, close enough to human scale to stir the uncanny sense you are one of them too — divorced, for a second, from whatever practical obligations you once had, freed to roam in your mental associations, just another nondescript body perched on a puddle of infinity.
Dark Star Park has been called Virginia’s Stonehenge. But Holt rejected this characterization of her work, noting her use of industrial materials and “big bulldozers.” Assembled without construction equipment, Stonehenge honors a celestial event: the solstices. The park, by comparison, is distinctly modern — perhaps even distinctly American — using a celestial event (the position of the sun) to honor a capitalist concept: a successful real estate investment.
Thirty-six years on, commemorating a white man’s land acquisition can feel antiquated at best. But Holt’s creation has superseded the history it commemorates. An Arlington County website lists August 1 as Dark Star Park Day, not Rosslyn Day.
It’s not inconceivable that Holt, if she were around to hear them, would share in some of the contemporary criticism of the art world. Land art — be it Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial, a vee-shaped gash in the earth, or Lita Albuquerque’s blood red trenches that temporarily turned the shadow cast by the Washington Monument into a giant calendar — draws from the space around it in a way that art in a white-walled gallery can’t. Holt liked how the surrounding environment altered her work over time, questioning what she called “the idealism of interior space” and seeking to respond to the psychosocial pulse of a place.
In Utah, Holt’s “Sun Tunnels” function like telescopes or cameras, cropping the picturesque desert into digestible snapshots. In Rosslyn, Dark Star Park does just the opposite: It works like a microscope.
With its generic chain stores and mirrorlike glass architecture, Rosslyn sometimes seems like it’s trying to disappear. The tunnels of Dark Star Park, which frame buildings and crosswalks along with the spheres, suggest that what Holt called a “cold, distant” urban landscape is worth a closer look. Here, under her viewfinder, a sliver of city seems expansive, sprawling.
Holt’s work — particularly on this one day of the year — reminds us that even when one day seems indistinguishable from the next, the universe’s unhurried motion is still visible all around, in the slow shifting of sightlines and shadows.
On Aug 1 from 9:15 to 9:45 a.m., the Rosslyn BID will live-stream the annual gathering at Dark Star Park on Facebook to avoid crowding.
Dark Star Park
1655 Fort Myer Dr., Arlington. parks.arlingtonva.us/dark-star-park.
Dates: On permanent view. The shadows of the park’s structures align with ground marking every year on Aug. 1 at 9:32 a.m.