Troublemakers: The Story of Land Art (First Run Features, NR)

It’s a beautiful film, but it’s also insightful.troublemakers

One of the more unusual movements in the art world is that of land art, in which artists physically manipulate the materials of the landscape (soil, water, rock, etc.) in order to produce art. Or is it art? The answer lies in the eye of the beholder, and there’s plenty of visual documentation of the works of the land artists of the 1960s and 1970s (more specifically, who began work then, since some are still at it today) in James Crump’s documentary Troublemakers: The Story of Land Art to let you make up your own mind. In fact, since many works of land art are by nature place-bound and many are also ephemeral, the only way most people will ever get to see them is through photographs or film, so watching this documentary is as good as it gets as far as actually seeing what the land artists created.

Robert Smithson, Walter De Maria, and Michael Heizer are among the artists profiled in Troublemakers, and the film provides enough context to situate them within both the history of art and the culture and politics of their times. It’s a beautiful film, but it’s also insightful, salted throughout with many interviews that provide a variety of viewpoints on land art. I tend to have a low tolerance for artists making grand claims about their purposes or their works because self-promotion is a pretty much a requirement if you want to succeed in a competitive field where there are no absolute standards of right and wrong, or even good and bad. Fortunately, Troublemakers provides you with the visual evidence of the created art works to balance the words of the artists and others, so you don’t have to accept the artists’ estimations of themselves and their works.

There are many contradictions in the careers of the land artists, not least the fact that they claimed to want to be free of the conventional art world, yet sought out the attention of influential people and were more than ready to accept money from patrons, most notably 3M heiress Virginia Dwan. They often act as if they were the first to discover the American West, for instance, as if people had not been living there for millennia already, and wanted people to believe that if one of them was digging a hole in the name of art, that was more interesting than someone else doing exactly the same thing for a more practical reason. So the posturing can get a bit thick, but they’re certainly not the first artists to engage in such behavior. After all, Jackson Pollock liked to dress up as a cowboy and present himself as a representative of the Wild West, while in fact his father was a surveyor, the family left Wyoming when Pollock was a baby, and Pollock himself was afraid of horses. | Sarah Boslaugh

Troublemakers: The Story of Land Art will be screened at 7:30 pm on Feb. 26, 27, and 28, at the Winifred Moore Auditorium at Webster University (470 E. Lockwood Ave., St. Louis, MO, 63119). Tickets are $6 for the general public, $5 for seniors, Webster alumni, and students from other schools, $4 for Webster University staff and faculty, and are free for Webster University students with proper ID. Further information about tickets is available here and the film series calendar is available here.

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