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Troublemakers: The Story of Land Art

This mesmerising documentary reveals the little-known American "dirt" artists from the '60s and '70s, who transformed the American deserts and the Earth into a giant canvas - the picture above was captured by helicopter

Troublemakers unearths the history of land art in late 1960s and early 1970s. It features a collective of artists, mainly North Americans, who describe their work as “land art” or “dirt art”. Michael Heizer, Dennis Oppenheim, Germano Celant, Walter De Maria, Robert Smithson, Nancy Holt had a physical conception that art was strictly connected to earthly landscapes. They avoided showing work in galleries; instead they searched for open spaces, so that the Earth became malleable.

They transcended the limitations of painting and sculpture by producing earthworks on a monumental scale in the desolate desert spaces of the American southwest. They subverted the meaning of painting by devising a much larger “canvas” to work. Big spaces like the Grand Canyon and sites in California, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah offered visibility of up to 40 miles. For them, open spaces induce awe in the viewer and create a new immersive experience that is not possible in the cities.

Kansas City – due to its proximity to the “land art” locations – became a cultural hub in the US for marginalised artists. It attracted people who lived in Chelsea Hotel, in New York. Chelsea Hotel was famous for housing very creative artists, such as Robert Mapplethorpe, Patti Smith, Bob Dylan, Charles Bukowski, Janis Joplin, Arthur C. Clarke, Leonard Cohen, among others.

The piece called ‘Double Negative’ by Michael Heizer was a new kind of sculpture and landscape. It showed scars on a mesa. Heizer shunned traditional art concepts. He had ecological concerns and he was influenced by his father, who was an archaeologist. When invited to demonstrate his work in a French gallery, he simply dug a hole on the wall. Heizer is still alive and has been working on a secretive piece for the last 30 years.

‘Spiral Jetty’ by Robert Smithson is also examined in the movie. It forms a 1,500-foot long and 15-foot wide counterclockwise coil jutting from the shore of the lake. Smithson was one the most ambitious artists of the collective. He was also a writer and a leader who wrote apocalyptical notes about his pieces. The Vietnam War (1954-1975), the Cold War anxieties and other political uncertainties of the nuclear age were in the background of the land art.

Because their work was not exhibited in galleries, it was difficult to reach it, as well as be sold. They couldn’t sell 400 stainless steel poles, with solid, pointed tips arranged in a foundation in New Mexico. ‘The Lightning Field’ by Walter De Maria was commissioned by Dia Art Foundation but it flopped. Trips to the site consists of a long drive, because the installation was intended to be viewed in isolation.

American gallerist Virginia Dwan sponsored some artists, but all she could sell were photos. These photos never achieved the high market value of a Mapplethorpe shot.

James Crump used original footage produced with helicopters and rare re-mastered vintage footage from the period. Troublemakers: The Story of Land Art is Crump’s second feature. His debut is a documentary entitled Black White + Gray (2007) about the influential and legendary curator and collector Sam Wagstaff and artist Robert Mapplethorpe – it was described by The New York Times as “a potent exercise in art-world mythography”.

The film is as immersive experience that transports the viewer, just like art pieces it examines. There is something devilish in the fruition of “land art”. Troublemakers: The Story of Land Art rescues the contradiction and conflicts of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Their impressive audacity and protests were never to find a suitable channel. “Land art” is the most efficient way to build another universe in art. And the film is an impressive register of the radical artistic experimentations of an anti-establishment group of young artists.

Troublemakers: The Story of Land Art will be released in cinemas and on demand on Friday May 13th.

Watch the film trailer below:


By Maysa Monção - 09-05-2016

Maysa Monção is a Brazilian writer, teacher, translator, editor and art performer who currently lives in London. She has a Masters Degree in Film Studies from Tor Vergata University in Rome, Italy, ...

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