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“The reality is that copyright fees are as trivial to museum bottom lines as NPR is to the U.S. budget.”—William Poundstone lauding Michael Govan’s decision to kill “Zombie Copyrights”
“Today L.A. may be home to the most important concentration of contemporary artists in the world. Only time will tell, but with proper patronage and institutional focus, we could be living in a great time and place for art to be made–like New York in the 1950s and 60s, Paris or Vienna around the turn of the twentieth century, or even the cities of the Italian Renaissance.”— Michael Govan, Director of LACMA, to me in my email inbox.
Levitated Mass: ‘Huh? Wow!’ or ‘Wow! Huh?’
This past Sunday, under the beating hot Los Angeles sun, LACMA finally held its inauguration ceremony for “Levitated Mass,” the 340-ton piece of California granite which traveled for 11 days at 8 miles an hour through Southern California, eventually to be placed across a 456-foot long trench in the northwest quadrant of LACMA’s campus.
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was there (his speech was mediocre). County supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky was there (his speech was better). Michael Govan, the museum director, was there (“silver-tongued” is the adjective that comes to mind). Michael Heizer was also there (he did not give a speech, although he made himself available for questions after the ceremony ended).
The ceremony marked the climax of a decades-long process, the last six to eight months of which having been picked over by journalists, critics, and the general public — most especially Angelenos, from whom the most common outcry was, “$10 million for a rock?’
As William Poundstone writes for Artinfo, “The reactions to Levitated Mass (of Internet posters who haven’t seen it) might be worth a future doctoral thesis. Initially it was political. Conservatives were itching to condemn it as a waste of taxpayer money, only to be flummoxed by the awkward fact that the money was 100 percent private sector. Liberals faulted it for privileging the dominion of “man” over nature (though having seen it, I tend to read it the opposite way. Who’s on top, humans or rock?) In the past few days, the main thesis of commenters has been that it’s not “levitating,” ergo contemporary art is a con game (“What FREAKING waste of time and money. … Thats’ not Art, It’s STUPID! DUMB!”).”
So now that the rock is in place, and all of the museum’s cards are on the table, what is to be made of the finished product? Was it worth it?
Here are a few complaints: the slot is a little too wide for the mass to feel like it’s levitating. Straddling might be a more appropriate verb. For all the fanfare made over moving such a large mass, it still seems smaller than expected, especially when compared to the trench and the rest of LACMA’s buildings. And the choice to leave the surrounding area bare gives one a curious feeling of emptiness, rather than overwhelming mass and power.
I brought these complaints up the next day in conversation with an artist friend, who looked at me and said, “Yes, but that’s Heizer, isn’t it? The dramatically anti-dramatic.” This sentiment, along with another from William Poundstone (he quotes Ed Ruscha’s axiom that “good art should provoke a response of ‘Huh? Wow!’ rather than ‘Wow! Huh?’”) struck a chord.
In many ways, Michael Govan and Michael Heizer have achieved the impossible, making a spectacle out of the ordinary. The rock is a rock. I spoke with Govan about the choice to leave the area surrounding the trench bare, which he emphatically and adamantly argued was a necessity, meant to function as a desert void in a city without enough emptiness of its own, and perhaps he’s right. Amidst its bare surroundings, “Levitated Mass” transcends being mere plop art and invites earnest contemplation, if you allow it.
Los Angeles is a city of illusions. Over at MOCA, Jeffrey Deitch seems to have embraced this approach, offering flashy, staged shows that pack in crowds and falter in their substance after multiple viewings (James Franco’s “Rebel” and Cai Guo-Qiang’s “Sky Ladder” come to mind). If that’s what it takes to secure the funding for less popular exhibits, so be it. But congratulations to LACMA for finding a way to wrap it all into one, 340-ton bundle.
Everything Needs an Origin Story (Radio Segment)
If all went according to plan this Saturday morning, the L.A. County Museum of Art received its newest and largest acquisition: a 340-ton granite boulder, which will sit on top of a 456-foot-long concrete slot – walkable by museum visitors – in LACMA’s north lawn. Known as “Levitated Mass,” it’s the result of over 40 years of work by artist Michael Heizer and a slow, eleven-day journey winding along dozens of Greater LA surface streets. But where did it come from? And why that rock?
“They claim we went to the moon, but they didn’t have to go through thirteen, fourteen cities in Southern California to get there. That’s the only reason they made it.”
So says Danny Johnston, a retired rock salesman and project coordinator for Paul Hubbs Construction, which operated Riverside’s Stone Valley Quarry at the time that artist Michael Heizer found the boulder. Heizer started as an artist in the 1960s as part of the land art movement, using earth and stone as his medium. Most of his work can’t be seen in a museum but in remote parts of the Nevada and California desert.
Heizer first visited the Stone Valley Quarry early last decade. According to Johnston, Heizer started “small,” selecting 8- to 10-ton rocks, and then moved on to 60-and 70-ton rocks, which he relocated to Nevada.
“And as time went on he told me about this one deal he’d always been looking for a big enough rock to do…” Heizer had originally sketched out “Levitated Mass” in 1968, but failed to find the backing. And his vision hadn’t gotten smaller – with memories of trips to ancient Egyptian and Mexican ruins with his father, an anthropological archeologist, Heizer “was wanting a 1000-ton rock.”
And then one day in 2005, after a mostly routine blast in the quarry, the rock appeared.
“Well, it kind of reminded me of a big chocolate kiss, you know, the little ones? The shape is similar to that, it sat right down on the bottom of the big part and went up pretty much to a point, you know. I thought it was a neat-looking rock because it had different faces, you know, it wasn’t square or round – it looked like a cut stone, almost.”
Johnston immediately called Heizer.
“And sure enough, as soon as he seen it, he knew which one I was talking about.” The next thing Johnston said? “I told ‘em, I said the thing is, Mike – it’s huge. You can’t move it, it’s too big. There’s no way that one’s going to go.”
They auditioned company after company for the job.
“We had a guy, and I won’t mention any names, but they had two D-11’s and a 992, that’s the largest Caterpillar loader and the two largest dozers; all three of them hooked to that, trying to pull it away from the face, so it wouldn’t be damaged, and they moved it six inches. All day long. Five hours on it. That’s how massive and heavy this rock is.”
Four years later, LACMA finally found a suitor for the rock in Emmert International. Emmert employee Rick Albrecht supervised the move. Albrecht said the company had to design a trailer specifically for the job—one of the largest of its kind.
“What we built is a carrier beam trailer. The main frame is 132 foot long, or 27 foot wide. The piece is suspended inside the carrier, and it’s holding the weight of the rock and stabilizing it, and this is what we’ll use to transport down the road. Our overall length will be 274 feet from bumper to bumper, from pull truck to push truck, and we basically will just roll down the road and we’ll get there in 10 days.”
Michael Govan is the director of LACMA and a longtime friend of Heizer’s. Part of his vision for LACMA is to anchor the museum with large-scale sculptures like “Levitated Mass.”
“There’s something very magical about a large stone – so many ancient cultures made large-scale architectonic sculptures because it has such emotional power. I think that’s what the sculpture is intended to inspire in the viewer.”
Govan added, “I know the press has given a lot of attention to this 340-ton megalith, but the sculpture is the marriage and the contrast of two forms: a found object in nature – the rock, which is incredibly beautiful California granite – and the supergeometric, crystalline, modern-looking slot. One is very long, one is concentrated in weight. One is sort of human – made of concrete – one is nature-made. One is sleek and geometric, one is rough. One is very empty (the slot) and one is very weighty (the rock).”
We asked, “Was the title always “Levitated Mass?”
“Yes, Levitated Mass, because – it’s what art is, is to levitate the weight of something of our culture, of history. You levitate something so it can be seen, so it can be light.”
The arrival of rock at LACMA is just the beginning for “Levitated Mass”—the museum has to place and secure the rock, as well as finish landscaping the area around the slot. LACMA says they’re shooting for early summer.