Czanne unmasked: the shattering portraits that blew Picasso and the Paris avant garde away

He painted his wife without lips. He painted his friend with a spinal deformity. And he painted himself as a ghost in a top hat. Paul Czannes unflinching portraits, coming to Britain this autumn, didnt just astonish Picasso and his disciples. They changed art for ever

In Paris at the dawn of the 20th century, a generation of young artists changed everything. They visited the dusty yet magical galleries of the Ethnography Museum in the rambling Trocadro and some started their own collections of African masks. This fascination with non-European art helped them break with hundreds of years of tradition. Pablo Picasso completed a portrait of his friend Gertrude Stein by giving her a mask instead of a face. He then painted Les Demoiselles dAvignon with its wildly cavorting masked prostitutes. Modern art was born in those bold years, in a glamorous atmosphere of absinthe, drugs (Picasso and his friends dabbled in opium) and sex in the red light district of Montmartre.

There is just one problem with this exhilarating story of the birth of modern art. It is not true.

My doubts began a couple of years ago in Londons National Gallery. I was looking at Paul Czannes Les Grandes Baigneuses, which he started in 1894. He was in his 50s then and did not complete it until 1905, one year before his death. Looking at the bold slashing lines of its landscape and the monumental abstracted nudes gathered under a crystalline sky, I realised something about the faces. Their eyes are dark sharp cuts. Their mouths, too. Their noses are like rigid blocks of wood. These are not faces. They are masks.

Yet they were painted by a man who, as far as anyone knows, had never looked at any African art. As for sex and drugs, he never went near them. The art of Czanne is the fruit of long, focused study by one man in front of an easel through long hot Provenal days. And this is the art that changed everything. This great 19th-century artist invented almost everything we attribute to Matisse, Picasso and Braque. Modernism is all there in paintings he executed as early as the 1880s. Czanne may be the single most revolutionary artist who ever lived.

Her
Her lips are made to vanish Madame Czanne in a Yellow Chair (1888/90). Photograph: Art Institute of Chicago

To be fair, Picasso never pretended otherwise. His adulation of Czanne was so great he bought an estate in the foothills of Mont Sainte-Victoire, the mountain in Provence that became a famous motif in some of Czannes greatest paintings. The Spanish artist is buried there. He and Braque saw their movement, cubism, as the direct continuation of Czannes work.

Why do we persist in attributing to the artists of the 1900s ideas they themselves confessed Czanne had come up with a quarter of a century earlier? It is partly because of the dismal cliche that impressionism, the movement with which Czanne was associated in the 1870s, is soft and gentle, even chocolate box. Yet it is also the fault of Czannes admirers.

For about 80 years after his death, the belief was held by critics that Czannes art leads directly towards the high abstraction of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. His painting was given almost mystical properties by theorists of modernism. It can do your head in trying to understand exactly why his apples lead to a flat picture surface, especially when those apples look so damned round. Then, in the 1980s, we entered the age of postmodern art and it no longer seemed essential for anyone to make that effort.

Yet I am still banging my head against those apples. My introduction to modern art was the classic Robert Hughes TV series The Shock of the New in which Czanne is as towering as his mountain. So I couldnt wait to see Czanne Portraits, which comes to the National Portrait Gallery this October. I had to see it at its earlier stop, at the Muse dOrsay in Paris. It turns out to be the exhibition Czanne deserves and needs: a powerful, even shocking revelation of his genius.

Lets begin with masks. My suspicion that Picasso did not get them from African or Oceanian art but saw them first in the paintings of Czanne is amply confirmed by the long row of portraits of his wife, Hortense Fiquet, that line a wall, like Easter Island statues overlooking a bleak ocean. In a portrait he began in 1886, his wifes face becomes a porcelain mask. It is almost perfectly oval, unlike any human face. It is also as pale as a china cup. Weirdest of all, the lips are in the process of vanishing. Czanne erases his wifes mouth in a blank blue-tinged nothingness. For the moment lets leave any psychological interpretation of that aside. The artist looks at this face as if he were an alien, making a digital simulation of a human being.

His art dealer Ambroise Vollard looks back at him in the same alienated way. In Czannes 1899 portrait, the dealers black eyes have no human light: they are like holes in a mask. Vollards face is made of patches of colour, interacting greens, reds and yellows. Its harmony is unreal. Thin eyebrows balance above a straight nose under an immense forehead.

Once you start looking for Czannes masks, they are everywhere in portraits of children, peasants, even of himself. In about 1882 he painted his face in an eerie masterpiece that has been lent by Moscows Pushkin Museum. The bald dome of his head in this self-portrait really does look like a dome, or an egg a perfectly rounded object, out of which bright sunlight carves the simple, stark features of his face culminating in grey and white slashes of beard hair. What a strange face, he thinks, as he looks in the mirror. Who is it?

Eyes
Eyes like holes in a mask Czannes art dealer, Ambroise Vollard (1899).

If you doubt the mask-like nature of these portraits, you only have to compare them with Picassos Portrait of Gertrude Stein (1905-6) to see how it develops its stony carved face directly from such paintings as Czannes Man with Folded Arms (1899). Yet if the modernist deconstruction of the human face is this far advanced in Czannes art, recognisable in the 1880s, where does he get it from? What was he looking at?

Just for one moment, scrutinising that porcelain portrait of Madame Czanne, did I wonder if he looked at non-European art for inspiration. The face almost resembles a Japanese theatre mask. Japan fascinated the French avant garde in the 19th century in Manets portrait of Czannes lifelong friend mile Zola, the radical novelist has the obligatory Japanese art in his study.

Yet, as the development of his portraiture in this superbly lucid exhibition suggests, Czanne did not need to look at works of art from Japan or anywhere else for ideas. He got his idea of the mask from looking at faces themselves, again and again, until he could see them as pure geometry.

In his portraits of his wife there is a terrible distance. When he makes her lips vanish he seems to be doing imaginary violence to her, applying the painterly equivalent of a scolds bridle. In other paintings it is clear he is idealising her turning her face into a perfect geometrical form like the egg that hangs by a thread in Piero della Francescas Renaissance masterpiece The Brera Madonna.

Like Piero, who wrote manuscripts on mathematics, Czanne searched for geometrical order in the visual world. He famously said art should treat nature like the sphere, the cylinder and cone. But Czannes portraits are about a lot more than symmetry; they are about the unease of the human condition.

In Manets portrait of Zola, next to a Japanese print and behind Manets own Olympia, the author has pinned up a picture by the great Spanish painter of melancholic irony, Velzquez. One of Czannes first portraits in this exhibition is reminiscent of Velzquezs compassionate paintings of dwarves at the Spanish court. It is a portrait of his artist friend Achille Empraire, who was born with restricted growth and a spinal deformity. Instead of masking his physical frailty, Czanne emphasises it by sitting Empraire in an armchair with a very high back. Posing sadly, he has the clothes, beard and moustache of a romantic bohemian, yet his head massively outweighs his thin legs and emaciated hands.

This is Czannes first great painting. It dates from 18678 when he was still on a steep learning curve as an artist. Yet it transcends its technical crudeness: it is profound, speaking of the vulnerable isolation of all human beings. Enthroned like a king in his queer chair, Achille Emperaire is a tragicomic everyman. This is an unsettling and mighty image of the modern self.

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Antony Valabrgue fashionable black clothes heighten the lightlessness of the space. Photograph: Getty

Even more than his abstracting of the human face, it is the sensitive intelligence with which Czanne diagnoses modern unease that makes him such a shattering portraitist. You see it in his 1866 portrait of his friend Antony Valabrgue staring fixedly into space as if in a state bordering on mental disarray. Czanne cunningly uses the black clothes of 19th-century male fashion to heighten the gloom, setting his subject against a lightless space. It makes you think of Dostoevsky, but perhaps a better fictional analogy is Zola, who also appears in an early portrait here.

Czanne and Zola were best friends at school in Aix before both becoming part of the Paris avant garde. Zola portrays his friend, sometimes cruelly, in his novels. He brought a new human rawness to fiction: there had never been anything like his stories of sex and violence. His 1867 masterpiece Thrse Raquin is still shocking in its bleak absurdism, the most relentless, unforgiving noir horror imaginable and utterly realist. Perhaps their closeness helps us to understand why, even in his first portraits, Czanne has such a terrifying eye for discomfort, neurosis, weakness.

He turned that eye most ruthlessly on himself. Czannes self-portraits are the emotional equivalent of his paintings of Mont Sainte-Victoire endlessly questing miracles of scrutiny. What is he looking for? Himself. His true identity. Why does he keep coming back to his own image in the mirror? He cant find what he was looking for. He thinks he has caught it, but it slips away. He cannot ever be sure who he is.

In a beautiful pairing by the curators, Czanne in 1885-6 portrays himself in a tall bowler hat (in French its a chapeau melon) looking from the side, as if he has just turned round and spotted himself. He looks displeased. This painting has a strong, solid, almost sculptural finish. But then he thinks again. In a second painting he has the same pose and hat but the image is dappled, incomplete, vanishing. Did he really see what he thought he saw? Hes uncertain now. Another unsettling reperception of his own image is a painting from about 1885 based on a photograph taken in 1872. Can the Czanne who is painting it even be sure he is the same man he was 13 years earlier? He seems far from convinced. One eye in the portrait is almost closed. The figure is isolated in ghostly blue. Who was I, then?

Czanne not only anticipates Picasso but also Proust and Joyce as he meditates on the nature of the self. We are not continuous beings, his portraits suggest. We are mysteries to ourselves and others, divided and fragmentary behind our masks. He is the true inventor both of modern art and the modern soul.

  • Czanne Portraits is at Muse dOrsay, Paris, until 24 September and at the National Portrait Gallery, London WC2H, from 26 October until 11 February.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/aug/11/cezanne-unmasked-the-shattering-portraits-that-blew-picasso-paris-avant-garde-away

That’s so random: Jan Cieslikiewicz’s search for order in pictures

Polish photographer Jan Cieslikiewicz went from maths at Harvard to a Wall Street trading job and then left it behind to embrace uncertainty

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/gallery/2017/feb/10/jan-cieslikiewicz-photographer-null-hypothesis

Paintings reveal early signs of cognitive decline, claims study

Psychologists believe they can identify progressive changes in the work of artists who went on to develop Alzheimers

The first subtle hints of cognitive decline may reveal themselves in an artists brush strokes many years before dementia is diagnosed, researchers believe.

The controversial claim is made by psychologists who studied renowned artists, from the founder of French impressionism, Claude Monet, to the abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning.

While Monet aged without obvious mental decline, de Kooning was diagnosed with Alzheimers disease more than a decade before his death in 1997.

Alex Forsythe at the University of Liverpool analysed more than 2,000 paintings from seven famous artists and found what she believes are progressive changes in the works of those who went on to develop Alzheimers. The changes became noticeable when the artists were in their 40s.

Though intriguing, the small number of artists involved in the study means the findings are highly tentative. While Forsythe said the work does not point to an early test for dementia, she hopes it may open up fresh avenues for investigating the disease.

I dont believe this will be a tool for diagnosis, but I do think it will trigger people to consider new directions for research into dementia, she said.

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William de Koonings Woman 1, 1950 and Untitled XXVIII, 1983. Composite: Alamy

The research provoked mixed reactions from other scientists. Richard Taylor, a physicist at the University of Oregon, described the work as a magnificent demonstration of art and science coming together. But Kate Brown, a physicist at Hamilton College in New York, was less enthusiastic and dismissed the research as complete and utter nonsense.

Forsythe and her colleagues used digital imaging software to calculate how a mathematical feature called fractal density varied in artists paintings over their careers. The seven artists included Monet, Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall, who all aged without obvious brain disease; Salvador Dali and Norval Morrisseau, who developed Parkinsons; and de Kooning and James Brooks, another abstract expressionist who was diagnosed with Alzheimers in 1985, seven years before his death.

Fractals are geometric patterns that repeat themselves at different size scales. They are seen in nature in the branching of trees and rivers, and in the craggy contours of coastlines. In paintings, fractals appear when patterns made by the tiniest brush strokes repeat on larger scales. The fractal dimension is a measure of fractal complexity, where an artwork with a large fractal dimension has a high ratio of fine to coarse fractal patterns.

Forsythe found that paintings varied in their fractal dimensions over an artists career, but in the case of de Kooning and Brooks, the measure changed dramatically and fell sharply as the artists aged. The information seems to be like a footprint that artists leave in their art, Forsythe said. They paint within a normal range, but when something is happening the brain, it starts to change quite radically.

Writing in the journal Neuropsychology, the scientists claim that the fractal dimensions of paintings by Monet, Picasso and Chagall tended to rise as they aged. For Dali and Morrisseaus work, the fractal dimension followed an upside-down U-shape over time, at first rising and then falling. The most stark result was seen in the works of de Kooning and Brooks, where the fractal dimension started high and dropped rapidly from the age of 40.

The work has echoes of previous studies that revealed early signs of dementia in the language used by the former US president Ronald Reagan, and the novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch. Telltale hints of future dementia have also been spotted in autobiographical essays written by nuns in their 20s.

Taylor pioneered the use of fractals to study and even authenticate drip paintings by the late US artist Jackson Pollock. He believes Forsythes research could do the same for other artists and save museums from being conned into buying fake artworks. But he also saw more important applications. This work could hopefully be used to learn more about conditions such as dementia, he said.

To me, the most inspiring message to come out of this work is that beautiful artworks can result from pathological conditions, he said. When de Kooning was diagnosed with Alzheimers, some critics argued that he should stop painting, but as he slipped into dementia, his artwork changed and became more simple, Taylor said.

To me, these more simple works conveyed a peacefulness that wasnt present in his nurture-dominated earlier work. It all goes to show that sometimes you can think too much about art. Sometimes you just need to tune into your inner self, the nature part, he said.

But Brown disagreed. In 2006, she co-authored a paper in Nature that disputed Taylors research. She said that sketches dashed out on her computer had the same fractal dimensions as a Pollock drip painting and might be authenticated as the real thing.

The whole premise of fractal expressionism is completely false, Brown said. Since our work came out, claims of fractals in Pollocks work have largely disappeared from peer-reviewed physics journals. But it seems that the fractal zealots have managed to exert some influence in psychology.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2016/dec/29/paintings-reveal-early-signs-of-cognitive-decline-claims-study

Deserts and dynamite: my journey to the cosmic heart of land art

As new film Troublemakers explores the extremes of land art, from lightning fields to satanic jetties, Alex Needham braves rattlesnakes to visit a desert observatory that lets you travel 26,000 years in time

Somewhere in the deserts of New Mexico, a nail is embedded into a type of flat-topped mountain known as a mesa. The positioning of this nail, shielded from the elements by a tin can, took days of trial and error, with astronomical measurements provided by the US Naval Observatory and the help of a surveyor. Finally, the correct spot was located: exactly in alignment with the axis of the Earth from the south pole to the north.

This nail which I braved rattlesnakes to find, on a mountaintop strewn with slabs of granite was fundamental to the success of Star Axis, an extraordinary naked-eye observatory that is the brainchild of artist Charles Ross. Only when Ross was sure he had the orientation precisely correct could he begin to build the structure he had dreamed about an obsession that has consumed him since 1971.

Star Axis is one of the worlds defining earthworks, otherwise known as land art. In the late 60s, a generation of young, New York-based artists, inspired by the space race but also by the turmoil of Vietnam, decided that galleries werent big enough to house their visions. So they struck out, choosing instead to make works on an epic scale, sculpted from the elements, in the astounding desert landscapes of the US south-west.

The
The power and the glory The Lightning Field by Walter de Maria

The results some of which could only be viewed properly from a plane include Robert Smithsons Spiral Jetty, a swirling basalt outcrop surrounded (before Utah was struck by drought) with vivid red water. This, says Virginia Dwan, the land art patron whose gallery helped facilitate it, makes the work feel almost satanic. Walter de Marias Lightning Field, meanwhile, features 400 stainless steel rods arranged in a grid in an area of high desert in New Mexico known for its electrical storms. Their appearance, during lightning flashes, is as dazzling as it is unearthly.

No less impressive is Michael Heizers Double Negative. Displacing 218,000 tonnes of rock, Heizer cut two enormous grooves 1,500ft (457 metres) long into a mesa in the Nevada desert. He followed this with City, also in the Nevada desert. Stretching over a mile, City is a staggeringly ambitious work full of sculpted pits and peaks. Heizer started it in 1972 and last year told the Guardian it was 98% finished.

Pretty little watercolours these are not. Made by bulldozers and dynamite instead of a paintbrush and easel, the works often sited on baking sandscapes fuse minimalism and modern industrial aesthetics to evoke the otherworldly structures of ancient civilisations, from Stonehenge to Mayan temples and the Egyptian pyramids.

Satanic
Satanic Robert Smithsons Spiral Jetty, seen from the air

The desert is a metaphor for fate anything can happen there, says James Crump, director of Troublemakers, a gripping new documentary film about these land artists. Theres danger, but theres also this possibility of enlightenment. The deserts like space. When Heizer refused to participate in Troublemakers, Crump contemplated filming City with a drone. But such is Heizers gritty cowboy demeanour, he would have probably shot the drone down.

The works were often undertaken at great risk to the artists themselves: Smithson was killed in a plane crash in 1973 while surveying sites for new work Amarillo Ramp. You have to ask yourself which young artist is willing to go out and make work in these kinds of conditions, says Crump, and challenge themselves with the possibility of death?

Too large to be bought, sold or moved, these works can only be seen if youre willing to travel. But be warned: the desert terrain can be hostile, and the works are not always easy to locate. British artist Tacita Dean made a work about failing to find Spiral Jetty on her first visit in 1997. These days, she says regretfully, its signposted. Spiral Jetty, she told the Canadian Art Foundation last year, was very much about relating to some sort of hidden place beneath Great Salt Lake, the universal core. She called her visit a true pilgrimage. And like any pilgrimage, the journey is an integral part of the experience.

Gritty
Gritty cowboy the building of Michael Heizers Double Negative

Which brings us to the extraordinary experience of seeing Star Axis. Like City, the work is still not finished one reason its not yet open to the public. The other is that the site has its perils, including several places where the unwary visitor could take a serious fall. Some railings will, apparently, be installed this summer. According to Crump, Ross himself once toppled off one of the structures high points while holding an 80lb bag of cement. Theres an element of sacrificial danger to his piece, says the film-maker.

The site is not suitable for daytrippers, which is why Ross has asked me not to divulge its exact location. When Star Axis finally opens which Ross estimates will be three to four years from now (though one associate says hes been saying that for the past 20 years) six people will be admitted at a time, staying in a guesthouse down the hill so they can experience Star Axis by day and night.

Ross spent four years looking for this site. Then one day he was parked in the New Mexico desert with no one for miles around when a cowboy came riding up like the Marlboro Man. Ross explained that he was looking for land for a project and the cowboy said: Oh, my dad would be interested in that. He gave him a business card.

Under
Under construction Spiral Jetty

Ross called the number and spoke to rancher WO Culbertson who, much to his surprise, said that his proposed observatory sounds like just the kind of thing we need around here. How much land did he need? About a square mile. Well hell, we got plenty of those, declared Culbertson. Drive around the ranch and pick one out. Ross took 400 acres in the end 50 for Star Axis and 350 for the mesa on which his house is situated, which he shares with his wife, the artist Jill OBryan.

My friend Jess and I have driven through mountains and deserts to a prearranged meeting point: a postbox on a dirt road. Were early, so we drive down the road. Off in the distance we can see a stony point sticking out of the top of a mesa. Ominous and alluring, this is our first sight of Star Axis.

At 5pm, a man called Harry Leippe arrives in a pickup truck. A sculptor based in New Mexico, Leippe is 90, and has known Ross, his junior by 12 years, since the late 1950s, when both were at Berkley, where Ross was studying mathematics. Leippe has collaborated on Star Axis since before the beginning, and looks after the site while Ross is away: the artist spends half the year here, the other half in New York.

Its not difficult to see why Star Axis is taking so long. Despite the monumental scale of the project, it is being built by a surprisingly small number of people: between four and six locals. A greater number than that, says Ross, and people start to get in each others way. Do people round here think hes nuts? My foreman overheard someone in the general store say, Hey man, that guy up on the hill, hes crazier than we are! A reputation Id like to keep.

Leippe leads us down five miles of dirt road. We go through two gates warning away trespassers and bumpily ascend the mesa. At the top is a granite pyramid, glowing pinkish in the late afternoon. Much of the granite was donated by a company in Texas: Ross estimates its value at a million dollars. When I ask if the project has been easy to fund, he shouts with laughter. My god, no! Were still struggling to get funding and I dont have the money to finish it. But weve had some generous donors and Ive funded more than half through sales of my work. Rosss other pieces include prism installations, which he started making in 1965. Exploring light has been his lifes work.

Inside
Inside the Hour Chamber at Star Axis, with the north star visible at the top of the triangular opening

Inside the pyramid, a curving flight of steps leads to the Hour Chamber. This is a pyramidal room with a triangular opening nearly 30ft tall. Jess and I sit on a bench at the back and wait for night to fall. Its a cloudless evening, with a sliver of new moon low in the sky. Before long, as promised by Ross, Polaris appears, clear and bright at the apex of the triangle. Polaris, the north star, is around 430 light years from Earth, directly above the north pole.

Its the star that travellers have used to orient themselves for millennia. Because of the alignment of the work, Polaris doesnt move, but the stars below it arc round from one side of the triangle to the other, each taking exactly an hour. On this still night in the desert, thickly speckled with stars thanks to the absence of light pollution, were experiencing the rotation of the Earth as never before. Its a cosmic experience both literally and figuratively.

On the eastern side of the pyramid are two more lines, the higher of which points to the position of the sun at noon on the summer solstice; the lower to the sun on the winter solstice. There are steps to the top of the pyramid, which offers astounding views of the empty plains stretching out for miles around. At the bottom of the pyramid is a ledge. Jess and I peer over it and gasp: using dynamite, Ross has cut a steep-sided basin into the top of the mesa. At its base is the start of a real stairway to heaven: 163 steep steps leading back up to a circle cut into the pyramid and ringed with stainless steel. Through this, at night, you can see the north star.

This staircase, which rises through a tunnel, is the point of Star Axis. Exactly in alignment with the Earths axis, it demonstrates a phenomenon called precession, the slow cycle of change caused by the wobbling of the Earth. Because of this wobble, Polaris wont always be due north: over the course of 26,000 years, the axis will move to point to different stars, each becoming the pole star until returning to Polaris.

Star
Theres danger, but theres also this possibility of enlightenment. The deserts like space Star Axis

The ancient Egyptians knew about precession. Using nothing more sophisticated than a plumb weight and horsehair, they measured the north stars movement so accurately that, thousands of years later, the Naval Observatory told Ross: We can only better their measurements by the thickness of a few horsehairs. And this is one of the most moving things about Star Axis: it demonstrates the connection between the tiniest details and their grand consequences in the universe.

Ross realised that it would be possible to build a tunnel aligned with the Earths axis which, by moving up it, would allow visitors to trace the progression of the north star over this 26,000-year cycle. At first he envisaged a staircase on the front of the mesa, but then started having recurring dreams that said: You have to enter the Earth to reach the stars. Ross says: My attitude to those kinds of messages used to be What the hells that? and just plough ahead. But Ive learned to listen.

Charles
Charles Ross at Star Axis he once fell off the work clutching an 80lb bag of cement

Climbing the long, steep and (as yet) bannister-free staircase after dark, looking at the north star through the circle, youre seeing the axial wobble, as Polaris moves further from its central pole. Youre witnessing the star as it appeared at different stages through thousands of years of history and how it will appear in the future.

The first step will be dated 2100, says Ross. Thats the year when Polaris will be closest to its celestial pole. As you go up and put more effort in, youre going further back and further forward. It approximately goes from 11,000 BC, around the recently proposed time for building the Sphinx, to 15,000 AD. This mindbending concept may be hard to grasp, but the genius of Star Axis is that it shows rather than tells.

Though it combines architecture and science, Ross insists Star Axis an artwork first and foremost. Were not making a measuring device, he says. Were making a place for personal experience. It was always my intention that it should be a whole-body experience. That was the epiphany at the beginning like, This is an interesting idea, but I dont just want this in my head, I want to feel it form around me. To me thats art rather than science and all my scientific advisors would agree. He laughs.

Spinning
Spinning worlds the view from Star Axis at night

Its certainly a profoundly emotional experience, as is sitting in the chamber at the foot of the stairs and watching the stars move from one side of a rectangular opening to the other in a straight line again, thanks to the works alignment. Youre suddenly hyper-aware of the movement of the heavens and the mystery of the universe. Ill put it this way, says Ross, if you spend enough time there, a different part of your awareness wakes up. I think theres a recognition within the body of these alignments that weve had for ever. Its in our genetic code. A place like Star Axis lets that code express itself.

Ross actually thinks of Star Axis as sky art rather than land art. I had never visited any ancient observatories when I started building this. But when I visit them now I realise from my experience of Star Axis exactly why they built them: to get a feeling for the sky. They wanted to touch it, make it personal. They wanted to have a sense that they were reaching out and making physical contact with those alignments. A sensory experience, thats what they were going for, and you get it immediately if you go to Mayan observatories. Youre immediately in mentally, spiritually, physically.

Troublemakers depicts land art as a Promethean struggle between man and nature, but that is only part of Rosss experience. Moving heavy rocks and trying to get gravity to behave is a struggle. But the real point of his creation, he says, is sensing your place in the universe. I never feel small under the stars at Star Axis, Ross says. I feel more like, Wow, all of this has been made for me for all of us.

Troublemakers is in cinemas from 13 May. This article was amended on 11 May to correct the name of its director, James Crump.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/may/11/deserts-and-dynamite-my-journey-to-the-cosmic-heart-of-land-art