Considering what we now know about the ways our existence has altered our planet, the most monumental aspects of the late–20th century’s land-and-earth art movement might strike us today as touchingly redundant. Michael Heizer has dedicated the last 40 years to City, his modernist Angkor Wat in Nevada, but even if it's still gaped at by humans a millennium from now its mysteries might be less enduring than those of nearby Yucca Mountain, the site many politicians still press for as the depository of our nuclear waste. For all their present-day fascination, works like City, or Heizer's Double Negative (1969-70), or his rival Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty (1970) exist on a geological scale, part Ozymandias and part Brandenburg Concerto loaded onto the Voyager spacecraft, hardy proof that here once flourished intelligent civilization. The irony? The chance that, just up the road a piece, in some less arresting structure, the radioactive litter of that civilization awaits its chance to destroy whatever has come to wonder about us.
Sadly, there's no footage of City in James Crump's brisk new doc Troublemakers, a survey of the movement whose signature works will outlast us all. The movement couldn't quite outlast the '70s, though, for reasons Crump lays out in fascinating archival footage and interviews from back then and today. The film is most illuminating on the pre-history of Land Art, especially the breakthroughs and impulses that led Heizer, Smithson, Walter De Maria and more out of galleries and into the vastness of the American Southwest. There the Earth itself became medium, canvas, gallery space, material.
But, as Dennis Oppenheim notes in the film, liberation from the art world came with a price, or perhaps the very opposite of a price: “We were reducing the one thing we could sell to a photograph only.” In a vintage interview, Heizer testifies to the power of the commercial profitlessness of a work like his suburban crater Munich Depression (1970). Not only can't you move it or sell it — “In fact, it's an obligation.”
Crump dashes through names, dates and works, sometimes too quickly, as if he feels more obliged to mention everyone involved in the movement than he does to make their contributions truly clear. Many speakers attest to Heizer's brilliance as a thinker and writer, but the theorizing behind his works is only vaguely touched on — if you aren't sure what all the talk about “negative space” in Double Negative means, you'll need to look elsewhere. But Crump includes some potent, suggestive appreciations, especially from gallery owner and patron Virginia Dwan, who marvels at the “infernal” qualities of Spiral Jetty and speaks of her awareness of time itself as she passes through the corridor-like notch Heizer gouged into the Mormon Mesa in Nevada's Moapa Valley. The film's finest moment is its simplest, quietest and slowest, when we stop hearing about the significance of art that we must enter and explore to experience and instead get the chance, through some marvelous photography, to do so ourselves.
Crump nudges us through the manmade gorges of Double Negative, allowing time enough for viewers to study the layers of rock and eons, to arrive at our own impressions. At one point, he cuts to an aerial view of the tracks of cars in the desert, and for a moment you might wonder whether those, too, are art in the spirit of Heizer's motorcycle works. Crump could have taken longer still, at Double Negative or at Nancy Holt's Sun Tunnels, or when excerpting from Gerry Schum's experiential filmed report Land Art, and the film would only be better.