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‘Troublemakers: The Story of Land Art’: Assembling a History of the Impermanent

James Crump’s film focuses on a group of renegade New York artists in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Nothing lasts forever, and sometimes that’s the point, but thanks to the medium of film, what has been lost can still be experienced by future generations.

While most artists expect their work to endure, to survive long after the artist himself has passed away, James Crump’s film Troublemakers: The Story of Land Art focuses on a group of renegade New York artists in the late 1960s and early 1970s whose goal was to transcend the limitations of painting and sculpture by producing earthworks on a monumental scale in the desolate desert spaces of the American Southwest. They hoped to leave a lasting impression through art that would not stand the passage of time.

Walter De Maria, Desert Cross. El Mirage Dry Lake, 1969. Photograph © Gianfranco Gorgoni. Courtesy Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2008.R.6).

Crump’s 72-minute film includes rare footage and interviews that illuminate the lives and careers of storied artists Robert Smithson (Spiral Jetty), Walter De Maria (The Lightning Field) and Michael Heizer (Double Negative), the headstrong trio that established the land art genre, as well as other artists in the movement, exhibition curators, art dealers, gallerists, collectors and patrons. These revolutionary, antagonistic creatives risked their careers on radical artistic change and experimentation, and took on the establishment to produce art on their own terms, works that can never be possessed as objects in a gallery.

Using original footage shot from helicopters and remastered footage from the period, Crump’s cinematic journey takes viewers through the most significant land art sites in California, New Mexico and Utah. The film shows how nature performs in these works and alters them over time, sometimes radically reclaiming them, creating an ongoing dialogue between artist and the natural world.

The most compelling land art sites offered viewers a means to imagine and negotiate the scale of the human body with the enormity of our planet. Land artists were exploring a larger canvas to work on while simultaneously seeking to create works that induced awe in the viewer, thus producing a new kind of pilgrimage and a new kind of visceral viewing experience long before the advent of virtual reality.

This intention presented many challenges, not the least of which is the fact that much of the original art wasn’t widely seen except by those flying over the desert. This documentary film explores the art and allows a new generation to take in its scope and scale, but at the same time Crump admits that seeing these pieces on film doesn’t really do them justice.

Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels, 1976. © Holt Smithson Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York. 

“Photography and filmmaking will never replace the visceral, sensorial experience of visiting these sites, but I wanted to make a film that was respectful and that honored the works,” Crump says. “I also want the film to inspire viewers to actually take a road trip, to go out into the desert to experience these sites. I believe the film will bring much greater attention to some of the most important, though somewhat overlooked works and the renegades who created them.”

Even creating the film was a difficult endeavor, as a number of works presented in the film have either eroded significantly or have disappeared entirely. Crump and his team had to rely on original photos taken of these works, but the the director used these primary sources cinematically and incorporated subtle animation and movement to help bring the works back to life.

“Photography was always a debated topic in the history of land art, and there are many contradictions about the use of the medium,” says Crump. “For instance, both Michael Heizer and Walter De Maria endorsed the use of film and video early on to record their works and to document them for the future, but both later renounced photography and rejected the medium entirely with regard to its use with land art.”

Michael Heizer’s Circular Surface, Planar Displacement Drawing. El Mirage Dry Lake, 1969. Photograph © Gianfranco Gorgoni. Courtesy Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2008.R.6).

The debate over how photography and cinematography should be used will likely continue, but Crump argues that the film will shine light on these artists and their iconic works, which he hopes will “precipitate greater dialogue and vigorous debate about them.”

The world has changed a great deal since the 1970s, which has changed the way people are able to interact with the art form. “The technological advances that have taken place since the 1970s radically facilitate experiencing these works, in person or via social networks and the Internet,” says Crump. “It was very dangerous and difficult to get to these very remote sites in the early 1970s. Today, armed with GPS and a smartphone, one can negotiate these challenges far more easily than ever before.”   

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