Review: Troublemakers: The Story of Land Art

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DIR: James Crump PRO: Ronnie Sassoon, Farley Ziegler, Michel Comte DOP: Robert O’Haire, Alex Themistocleus ED: Nick Tamburri MUS: Petar Alargic, Travis Huff CAST: Walter de Maria, Michael Heizer, Robert Smithson, Virginia Dwan

 

A common question raised about art is whether artists create work for themselves or for their audience, or a little of both. Perhaps it is more righteous to say that art is made for others, to be consumed, perceived, and discussed by those other than its creators. This nicely side-steps any aspects of the artist’s ego, their fight against mortality, or their desire for recognition. Such ideas are called to mind by Troublemakers, James Crump’s documentary about the land art or earthworks movement in America in the late sixties and seventies.

Land art took the form of large scale, open-air structures, mostly in the vast landscape of the American southwest. Much of the work was often constructed from the land itself, be it from digging gouges in the earth, or using earth-moving equipment to assemble the piece.

The former was the preferred method for Michael Heizer’s Double Negative, an almost half-kilometre long trench in the Nevada desert, bisecting a natural canyon to form the work’s title: the negative refers to negative space of both man made and natural causes. Robert Smithson, another land art figurehead, utilised the latter method in his construction of Spiral Jetty on the Great Salt Lake in Utah. Nearly 14’000 tons of rock were moved to assemble the 460m long spiral projecting from the bank of lake. Both pieces remain in place today, subject to natural erosion, as the artists wished.

Such works were an obvious affront to commercial art culture. Large scale work in remote locations cannot be easily commodified or exhibited. Land artists felt the work needed to be experienced to be appreciated, yet access to their locations was often difficult. The artists’ dislike of photographic evidence of the work further distanced it from any potential audience. The work also had an inherent violence, in that their creation inevitably involved a large degree of destruction. The nature of the work leads to questions about who or what such art is for.

As land art encompassed many artists working in that period, there was some debate about who were the ‘pioneers’. Carl Andre, a contemporary of the main players in this film – Heizer, Smithson and de Maria – remarks wryly ‘Stonehenge was there before all of them’. This is perhaps the association the artists wanted people to make – to create works that left indelible marks on the landscape that would be assessed and speculated upon by future generations. This is one way to try and cheat death – make a mark so lasting that its creator can live on through its form for millennia. Crump’s film documents this historical artistic movement, while also raising greater questions about the nature of art itself.

Cathy Butler

72 minutes

The Story of Land Art is released 13th May 2016

The Story of Land Art  – Official Website

 

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