In the late 1960s, a few American artists began to abandon the gallery space for wide, open spaces. Bringing their cameras and equipment to desert plains, forests and rivers, these land artists (also called “earth artists”) desired to make a mark on a larger canvas. In this new documentary, the idiosyncratic, large-scale work of various land artists is, ahem, unearthed. From the “negative” Nevada sculptures of Michael Heizer to Robert Smithson’s construction of the Spiral Jetty, these adventurous artworks expanded, for many, the concept of what art is and where it could exist.
James Crump’s new documentary examines the work of artists who went beyond the parameters of traditional sculpture and photography. However, as a piece of film art, Troublemakers: The Story of Land Art could have broken a few more of the rules for information-heavy non-fiction works. One of the director’s major limitations is the lack of access to these artists, especially since many of them died in the past decade. The archival footage and second-hand accounts of these ambitious artists tries to capture their essence, but there are some pivotal details missing. It doesn’t help that one of the film’s more fascinating components, the sheer ambition of making multi-decade projects, doesn’t get much exposure. (Heiser, one of the genre’s most renowned sculptors, is still alive and working on a grand project in the desert. His voice is vitally missing from Crump’s film.)
For those curious about a unique movement in art history, Troublemakers is an efficient primer. Crump makes formidable use of 16mm and 35mm films from these artists, which examine their missions to create works that intersect humans with their surroundings. Still, one wishes the film had used the talking head interview approach more sparingly, and offered more time to gaze and marvel at the artworks. There is a two-minute stretch in the film where the doc’s camera crew lets us take in these monstrous artworks in natural spaces as hazy, ambient music plays. The grandeur is mesmerizing, but there is too little of it.