1 of 3
Troublemakers: The Story of Land Art
2 of 3
Sunlight in Sun Tunnels, 1976.
3 of 3
Photograph © Gianfranco Gorgoni, 2014.
Michael Heizer. Circular Surface
Planar Displacement Drawing. El Mirage Dry Lake, 1969
In the late 1960s a group of young American artists started constructing large-scale or conceptual artworks outdoors. Some were monumental and bombastic, some were subtle and fragile and all were difficult to capture on film or in photos. Most of the artists were drawn to the wide open spaces of the West and the desert and were inspired to reject the art establishment by the same impulses that led to most other counter culture expression.
I was familiar with Robert Smithson's iconic Spiral Jetty, which he built out of rock and earth in Utah's Great Salt Lake in 1970. I was blown away by the project when I saw his accompanying film which features his thoughts about art and the landscape and history, which were more thoughtful, perceptive, penetrating, strange and otherworldly (more speculative sci-fi geography than artist statement) than anything I'd read by a curator. But I knew nothing of his contemporaries Michael Heizer, Walter De Maria, Dennis Oppenheim, Carl Andre, Nancy Holt and many others or of art patron and gallery owner Virginia Dwan or impresario Willoughby Sharp.
Troublemakers is a 2016 documentary by James Crump which immediately drops the viewer into the milieu without explanation. As it progresses, it fills in some of the rest of the story: what was the historical context, who were the main players, how did the movement develop, who made which pieces and why. I liked the approach. However when it began this way I was expecting the film to do something more radical with form. Instead, it occupies an uncomfortable middle ground where things aren't really explained thoroughly but the narrative structure isn't weird or challenging either.
The works themselves are gorgeous and awe-inspiring even if we can only appreciate them on film or still image rather than in person. Crump's cinematography does a particularly good job of filming a few of the sites. He focuses on a couple of early exhibitions to outline the development of the artists and their relationship to the rest of the art world. The film also pulls together a lot of very entertaining archival photos and clips as well and assembling many of the players to talk about their involvement. Thankfully there are few talking heads, as the interviews tend to be played over other media. This keeps it a very visual experience, which is really needs to be. The music was omnipresent and, while I think a sound element was necessary, I don't know that the choices made here really complement the intensity, aesthetic or intention of the subject matter.
There are such great, eccentric characters here and they really do come alive. It is amazing to see Walter De Maria's lightning field, Nancy Holt's sun tunnels and to hear about a couple of artists (including Heizer with his work City) who have been working on their latest projects for decades. The individuals involved are intriguing people with something to say.
Many fascinating elements to the land art story still resonate today. The movement retains outsider status despite its monumental scale. It has an interesting intersection with environmentalism - much of it impresses the artist's self on the earth even though there is a narrative about freedom and nature. Michel Heizer's huge cut in the earth (Double Negative) seems rather violent, while Nancy Holt's Sun Tunnels seem more complimentary to their setting.
I was introduced to land art or environment art by Rivers and Tides, the documentary by Thomas Riedelsheimer which profiles the Scottish artist Andy Goldsworthy and his take on the movement in its current, more pastoral form. His art and the film itself aim to be beautiful but without the confrontational aspect of the original land art. Troublemakers fills in the historical context for many viewers who have seen lots of environmental art and now think of it as totally normal. The film could have emphasized how revolutionary land art was, even more than it does. I also wish the film had at least briefly considered how ubiquitous the form is now and touched on how influential it was. I believe a huge proportion of artists now churn out similar works without even quite realizing it.
I wish that Troublemakers had more of a point of view - in terms of structure, storytelling, aesthetic and pretty much every element. Despite that, Troublemakers is still worth seeing and viewers will definitely learn something they didn't know.