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Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, 1970
Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, 1970, From Troublemakers, Photography © Gianfranco Gorgoni, Courtesy Getty Research Institute

Shifting the Earth's Landscape to Create Conceptual Art

AnOther speaks to James Crump about his brilliant new film that explores the birth of contemporary Land Art in the 1960s – how a group of renegade artists took their practice out of the studio and into the desert

Lead ImageRobert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, 1970, From Troublemakers, Photography © Gianfranco Gorgoni, Courtesy Getty Research Institute

Land Art as a concept is nothing new – one only has to think of the Neolithic monument of Stonehenge and the numerous chalk horses carved into hillsides across the British countryside, or the two-thousand-year-old Nazca Lines in Peru that depict monkeys and hummingbirds 200 metres wide, labouriously dug into the desert rock, to realise that man has had a long affinity with leaving a mark on the surface of the planet. The practice of moving natural resources to create something that offers no mortal value is a deeply spiritual affinity. Disrupting nature to establish a physical manifestation of a concept exerts man’s power over the natural order; controlling the flora and the fauna, but also leaves a form that lasts far beyond the ephemerality of its creator.

A new film, Troublemakers: The Story of Land Art, by art historian and curator James Crump, charts the rise of Land Art as a conceptual genre adopted by a collective of American artists in the late 60s as a statement of contempt with the stagnation of commercial galleries and markets, and the constraints of their own practices. As part of the wider counter-culture movement happening at the time, these artists left the confines of their studios and headed out on journeys of discovery to the vast American expanse of desolate lands. The artists purchased canyons, coastlines and deserts and began, through back-breaking labour, projects that would create their own landscapes.

For his Double Negative work, Michael Heizer displaced 240,000 tonnes of earth to gouge an arrow-straight channel across a rocky canyon, while Robert Smithson created a 500-metre-long causeway of curling basalt in a blood-red lake in Utah to make his now infamous Spiral Jetty. These works rocked the art establishment by creating a physical representation of an action to change a landscape. Their remoteness required a pilgrimage to witness them, while the nature of their production caused them to crumble and decay, akin to an evolving, unpredictable performance. AnOther sat down with the Crump to discuss the documentary, and the history of Land Art.

“I made my first journey to Walter de Maria’s Lightning Field in South West Mexico in 1995, and from that point on I was always captivated by these artists and their sites. Visiting these places is an incredible journey in itself – it’s a dangerous road trip, and part of the experience.” Crump told AnOther. The film spent ten years in research but took only 13 months to produce, combining interviews, archive footage and stunning landscape shots. When questioned about what drew these artists to the desert, Crump responded, “The desert is a place where one can desert, it’s a metaphor for fate, a place where anything can happen. You can go there to rediscover, or to hide. For a long time it has been a place of shelter for freaks, occultists, murderers and outlaws. It’s both a man-made idea, and a natural event.”

The process of creation is as crucial to Land Art as the outcome. “To find these sites required long, long periods of reconnaissance, driving around the desert trying to figure out where you would place one of these ideas and manifest the vision. And then the land was all owned by mining companies for oil exploration, cattle ranchers and the government, so once the location had been discovered, leases had to be negotiated. Luckily the artists had sponsors with deep pockets who shared their vision for what art could be. The next step was finding the teams of labour, the heavy machinery and the dynamite to create the art.” Crump added, “Some of these works took six months, while some like Charles Ross’s naked-eye observatory sculpture Star Axis are still under construction after 40 years. Often these artists are working alone with no visitors, no press – it’s full of solitude.”

When asked about how these works reached the public, Crump said; “Photography was the chief way in the period with which the artists would document and disseminate their works – but photography has a very contentious relationship with Land Art. Artists such as Walter de Maria and Michael Heizer initially embraced the medium but later renounced it, encouraging people to make the visit in order to experience the work.” And what does the future hold for these works? “These artists were very concerned with preservation issues, and wanted nature to take its course on the work. The erosion is part of the intent.”