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Land Art on Film:
A Conversation with James Crump

By Stephanie Murg

“The desert is the most aesthetic place in the world,” said Walter De Maria, part of a cadre of renegade New York artists that sought to transcend the limitations of painting and sculpture by producing earthworks on a monumental scale in barren stretches of the American Southwest. Troublemakers, a new documentary (to be released on DVD in May), traces the history of land art in the tumultuous late 1960s and early 1970s. “I wanted it to be a cinematic journey, using original sixteen-millimeter and eight-millimeter footage, early Portapak video, and stills, but also recasting some of the works with technology available to us today,” says filmmaker James Crump. “We used vintage footage of [Robert Smithson’s] Spiral Jetty, and we did a principal shoot of [Michael Heizer’s] Double Negative. Both bring in the notion of photography’s role in land art.” We recently caught up with Crump to discuss Troublemakers and the ongoing, competitive dialogue between the artist and the natural world.

» Walter De Maria, Desert Cross. El Mirage Dry Lake, 1969. All photos from the documentary Troublemakers: The Story of Land Art, a film by James Crump. Photo © Gianfranco Gorgoni. Courtesy Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles.
» Nancy Holt, Sun Tunnels (1976). Photo © Holt Smithson Foundation. Licensed by VAGA, New York.
» Michael Heizer, Circular Surface, Planar Displacement Drawing at El Mirage Dry Lake (1969). Photo © Gianfranco Gorgoni. Courtesy Getty Research Institute.

In a rather recent previous life, you were a writer and curator. How did you make the transition to filmmaking?

I had been thinking about film for a long time, and around 2001 I went to an independent producers conference at Sundance, which was a crash course in filmmaking. The documentary form came in because of a particular project—my research on the curator and art collector Sam Wagstaff [the basis of Crump’s 2007 documentary Black White + Gray]. So it was very seat-of-the-pants, but now this is my practice, and I think it’s the place where I can best and most fully utilize my rather odd skill set.

What led you to make a documentary about land art?

In my research on Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe, I came across the artist Michael Heizer, and I did an interview with him in 2003. He ended up being a kind of character in Black White + Gray. Troublemakers began to gestate then. I lived in the Southwest, in Santa Fe, for over a decade, and I made my first trek to land art sites in the mid-1990s, so I was very aware of these artists.

Why do you think that now is the right time to consider—or reconsider—this work?

I felt that the story needed to be told now because of the current state of the contemporary art market—a highly commodified, hyper-speculative market in which people are beginning to look at art simply as another kind of asset. The spirit of these artists was profound, because they were endeavoring to make works that could never be owned. They were very interested in de-commodification and de-materialization, something that I would love for a younger generation of artists to learn about. These are the kinds of artists we should have conversations about right now, and that was the impetus to finally produce the film.

What aspects of their time were artists such as Robert Smithson, Walter De Maria, and Michael Heizer responding to?

They were all, in one way or another, responding to the social and political situation in America of the late ‘60s, particularly the Vietnam War, political assassinations and student protests here and also in Europe, and what I think they considered to be kinds of oppressive systems that they were fighting against. In some cases, those included traditional models for making and presenting art.

Nature does not proceed in a straight line. It is rather a sprawling development.Robert Smithson

Was it difficult to tell the story of land art in the form of a documentary?

It was challenging. Heizer refused to participate. De Maria had passed away [in 2013]. Nancy Holt had passed away [in 2014]. So I chose very carefully the principal characters who I felt could tell the story. There’s no voiceover, per se. It’s just the characters telling the stories and sharing the experiences of that particular period. It was hard to get the right mix, but I think we did in this case.

What about the American Southwest appealed to these artists?

I think they chose the desert because it is a place for deserters. You can get out of the city. You can hide. Popular culture of that time suggests that as well. Films like Zabriskie Point, Easy Rider, and in the case of Smithson, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey are looking at space, looking at the desert. So these artists are responding to the political situation and looking at the desert as an overlay. It’s a metaphor for fate. It can be anything. You could go out and find an incredible site, negotiate to control the land, and actually see a vision come to reality.

Do interventions made in the name of preservation, conservation, or restoration go against the spirit of land art?

There’s a debate emerging about nature’s role in these works. I think the Dia Art Foundation has made good decisions, for example, in how to deal with Smithson’s Spiral Jetty. The Great Salt Lake [site of Spiral Jetty] is now facing the greatest drought on record, and Dia chose not to do any interventions, because they believe that Smithson would have been averse to that. He made the work with the intention that nature would perform, and he was interested in dystopian narratives, entropy, and decay, and so that piece is going through a cycle of change. It was underwater, now it’s not. It may go back underwater. Who knows?

What are you working on these days?

Another feature documentary. It’s about the intersection of art and fashion in Paris around 1970. It’s a very exciting film, because it cuts a broad swath across the cultural landscape, bringing together the visual arts, music, disco, drugs, fashion. It’s told through the stories and the experiences of the American fashion illustrator Antonio Lopez. It’s called Antonio 70. We’re working on a rough cut right now, and we’re planning to release it in early 2017.