Troublemakers: The Story of Land Art
TROUBLEMAKERS: THE STORY OF LAND ART, documentary, not rated, Center for Contemporary Arts,
3.5 chiles The problem with some of the most iconic examples of land art, such as Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, which is periodically submerged and hidden from view by the rising waters of Utah’s Great Salt Lake, is that most people will never get to see them in situ. Some exist in remote, difficult to reach locations, as is the case with Nancy Holt’s Sun
Tunnels, in Utah’s Great Basin Desert. Holt, like her husband Smithson, was a part of the land art movement. Other land art projects were temporary, designed to degrade over time or, perhaps more pertinently, to erode. In their place we have documentation in the form of books, recorded videos, and photographs. Director and art historian James Crump’s new documentary, Troublemakers: The Story of Land Art, takes three of the movement’s pioneers as subjects: Robert Smithson, Walter De Maria, and Michael Heizer. These artists struggled against the status quo, taking their art outside the museums and galleries to engage directly with the environment, and creating works on a massive scale. The film covers a period from the late 1960s to the early ’70s, when the artists hung out at Max’s Kansas City, a New York nightclub where they could feed off one another’s ideas. As the title suggests, Smithson, De Maria, and Heizer were dissenters who attempted to free themselves from the constraints of the market, but also from the constraints of art. Land art showed that there were no limits to size. Monumental earthworks and staged events such as Smithson’s “pours,” in which he documented asphalt, concrete, and glue running over terrain, brought geography, politics, and place into the framework of conceptual art.
The artists were working at a time of increased political activism and counterculture idealism. Under the politically charged atmosphere that swept the country in 1968, the year that land art is considered to have its start, several movements were challenging authority and using art as forms of protest and dissent. Crump juxtaposes archival footage from the Vietnam War with images of U.S. ventures into space to underscore the idea that the context in which the artists were constructing their earthworks was one of extremes. On the one hand, there was the horror of war, and on the other, hopeful ambition.
Crump’s insightful documentary draws on his knowledge of art history. The film shows that the land artists were, for the most part, on their own, working without financial backing or representation. An exception was art collector and philanthropist Virginia Dwan, whose New York gallery provided Smithson with a grant to complete Spiral Jetty.
The film includes interviews from artists Carl Andre, Willoughby Sharp, and Charles Ross, among others, and benefits from their perspectives. Most of these artists were contemporaries of De Maria, Smithson, and Heizer, and were associated with land art and related movements. Their narratives often play out over stunning visuals of the Southwest and desert regions where many prominent examples of land art exist, including De Maria’s The Lightning Field, 400 lightning-conducting stainless steel poles located in Catron County, New Mexico. While not all earthworks stand the test of time, the legacy and influence of the land art artists endure. Ultimately, The Troublemakers respects its subjects without glorifying them. — Michael Abatemarco
Michael Heizer: Circular Surface Planar Displacement Drawing, 1970