Learn more about Dark Star Park
Appreciating a unique work of public art
Thirty-five years ago, work on Dark Star Park began on the former site of a gas station in Rosslyn. Today, Dark Star Park is one of the neighborhood’s hidden treasures that is special for so many reasons:
- It is the first work of public art produced in Arlington County, and predates the organization of Arlington’s formal public art program, which did not officially begin until the County Board adopted a Public Art Policy in 2000.
- It was created by land art pioneer Nancy Holt (1938-2014), and is one of the most significant works in her oeuvre, or body of work.
- It is unique among works in the land art/earthwork movement of the 1970s in which it originated. Land artists typically produced monumental works in remote, open spaces like deserts and beaches, but Dark Star Park exists in an urban setting.
- It may be one of the most artist-driven public artworks. Artist Nancy Holt was the prime contractor on the project, and she herself not only designed the artwork but also oversaw the design and construction of the entire park. This rarely happens today.
A quiet place that marks Rosslyn's history
Surrounded by tall office buildings, a condo complex, and a web of roads noisily buzzing with cars, trucks and pedestrians, the park is a wonderful – and unexpected – respite from urban life. It is composed of five large spheres, two reflecting pools, a stairway, a tunnel, metal poles and plantings. It sits half in the shade and half on a sunny traffic island. Each year on August 1, the day (in 1860) that William Henry Ross acquired the land that became Rosslyn, shadows created by the poles align with shadow patterns on the ground. The weather doesn’t always cooperate, but when it does, Director of Arlington Public Art Angela A. Adams says it’s quite a sight to behold.
“The alignment happens gradually and idiosyncratically. For a moment it looks like it’s not going to work and then all of a sudden, it snaps into place. The shadows add greater contrast to the markings on the ground, so that for a few moments they appear darker. That’s the reward of going to watch the alignment happen in person: you get to experience this fleeting, uber effect.”
Holt worked with an astrophysicist to make the shadow alignment happen. The time it takes place — 9:32 a.m. — was chosen simply because Holt liked the light at that hour.
When Adams and Holt worked together to rehabilitate the park in 2002, Holt re-engaged the astrophysicist to recalculate the alignment measurements, since they had become less accurate over time due to a wobble in the Earth's spin axis. Twice, elements of the park had to be lifted up and repositioned.
The renovation took five years, and although Holt initially resisted rethinking some materials in the original design of her park that were creating maintenance challenges, she eventually saw it as an opportunity to revisit and freshen up one of her best-known projects.
"Nancy really enjoyed working with engineers, construction workers, landscape and maintenance folks . . . all of the disciplines that came together under her direction to help her realize her vision,” Adams says.
An artist who made art “for all the right reasons”
The Land Art Movement* within which many of Holt's sculptural projects can be classified, was at its peak from the late 1960s through the late 1970s. According to theartstory.com, land art is “largely an American movement that uses the natural landscape to create site-specific structures, art forms and sculptures.”
Opposed to the commercialization and profit-making aspects of art, artists from the Land Art Movement purposely rejected traditional art gallery and museum spaces, preferring to create their projects in remote spaces. For instance, Holt’s most famous project, Sun Tunnels, consists of four, 18-foot-long concrete tubes she placed on a remote piece of desert land in northwest Utah. The tunnels are arranged to frame the rising and setting sun on the summer and winter solstices.
As the primary steward for one of Holt’s most famous works, Adams worked closely with Nancy Holt for many years, and was even asked to speak at her memorial service after Holt passed away from leukemia in 2014.
Although Adams says she and Holt were friends – or at least friendly – it took her many years to earn Holt’s trust. She describes the artist as “very exacting,” and says it sometimes felt like she was “on a long interview with her."
“Nancy came to trust me over time as she understood that I was a caring custodian of one of her most accessible and well-known projects,” Adams says.
“Making art was a constant learning enterprise for her. She loved to collaborate. You hear that word a lot, but not everybody’s so good at it. Nancy really gave herself over to collaboration.”
Adams calls Holt an artist who made art “for all the right reasons.”
"Contemporary art has taken a very commercial bent over the past several decades, but Nancy was part of an era when a well-known and respected group of artists were making art simply because they felt compelled to do it."
Another person well versed in Holt's work, James Meyer of the Dia Art Foundation in New York, called Dark Star Park "an important work in Holt's oeuvre." He says that because Dark Star Park was created in an urban location in collaboration with an urban community, it suggests "an engagement with urbanistic concerns that [Holt's] previous work -- and many works of land art -- eschew."
Visit this wonderful place!
If you live and work in Rosslyn or pass through here occasionally and have not been to Dark Star Park, you are missing out on something special.
Located at 1655 Ft. Myer Drive just behind the Park Place office building, Dark Star Park is a five-minute walk from the heart of Rosslyn. Come out on the morning of August 1 to see the shadow alignment at 9:32 a.m. And if you can't make it then, drop by the park on another day. It's a great place to enjoy your lunch or to spend some quiet time during a busy day.
Related point: Dark Star Park
* Holt and other artists who were part of this movement, including her husband Robert Smithson, are featured in a recent movie, Troublemakers.
Photo Caption: Pictured here is the shady part of Dark Star Park, featuring a tunnel and several large spheres. This photo was taken by Ron Cogswell.