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  • 03.16.12

Art Rock: Everything You Need To Know About L.A.’s Giant “Levitated Mass”

It’s rare that a piece of art gets coverage by mainstream news outlets, its own Twitter feed, and a movie. But “Levitated Mass” is in a 340-ton weight class by itself.

It wasn’t an epic car chase that had TV crews on alert and gawking crowds gathered along Southern California roadways for 11 consecutive nights last week, but the spectacle of a massive unidentified shrink-wrapped object being hauled at 5 mph on a 300-foot-long, 30-foot-wide, 23-foot-high, 236-wheel multi-vehicle caravan that resembled the mother of all monster trucks.

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What some onlookers speculated was a meteorite or a souvenir from outer space was in fact a 340-ton, 21.5-foot-high granite rock, forged from a 2006 blast at the Stone Valley Quarry in Riverside, California. The rock is “Levitated Mass,” the centerpiece of a $10 million outdoor installation at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

The rock will be hydraulically positioned into place over the next few weeks, suspended over a 456-foot-long, concrete-lined outdoor slot that dips to 14 feet below ground, allowing visitors to walk beneath its hovering enormity and live to tell about it once it opens later this spring or summer.

The Art of the Journey

The rock made a circuitous journey of 105 miles using surface streets (the rig was too tall to clear freeway overpasses) from the quarry through four counties and 22 cities to an area near the 6th Street entrance at LACMA. The boulder’s snail-paced procession in after-hours traffic drew thousands of fans, caused spontaneous block parties to erupt at every pit stop, and birthed a Twitter feed and countless rock pun headlines.

Terry Emmert, vice president of Emmert International, whose jobs have included hauling nuclear reactors and the Hubble Telescope, said that the quasi-military operation involved more than a year of planning as power lines and stoplights had to be displaced and engineering studies conducted to ensure that water mains wouldn’t burst and pavement wouldn’t crumble under the weight of the rock and its rolling entourage. The only thing he hadn’t planned on was the cheering audience at every street corner.

“There’s an art of execution involved,” Emmert said. “We call it performance art.”

The Artist and the Work

“Levitated Mass” is the brainchild of reclusive 67-year-old artist Michael Heizer, a Nevada-based “land art” pioneer whose monumental sculptures can be seen from the Seattle waterfront to the deserts of the American west. Heizer first imagined “Levitated Mass” in 1968, but it took him almost half a century to find the perfect rock.

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“This one is amazing, like a pyramid,” says LACMA director Michael Govan, “with a flat bottom, faceted and beautiful from all sides, which is rare for a stone this large.”

Heizer’s work combines organic objects with sculpted man-made forms. Govan said that it recalls the origins of art and civilization, when Egyptians built the pyramids and ancient Olmecs in Mexico moved large stones to mark important places. In an outdoor city like Los Angeles, he said, he hoped Heizer’s boulder would visibly mark the museum from the outside as a way of drawing people in.

The Film!

Doug Pray (Art & Copy, Surfwise) is making a documentary about the “Levitated Mass” project titled The Boulder.

“A lot of people don’t get it,” he says. “The main character is a rock?” But Pray said the film began to take on a life of its own somewhere along for the 11-day journey. “People from totally different demographics came out and reacted to it and reflected on it,” he said. “Some people were totally confused. Others were angry that in this economy so much money was being spent on a rock.” (The rock itself cost $70,000; the $10 million project budget was raised privately.) “But a lot more people were moved by the jaw-dropping sight of this big rock parked in their neighborhood. It felt like this march bringing the city together–and I realize that sounds totally corny and cliché.”

When the boulder made an unexpected stop near the Rock of Salvation church in Carson, California, Pray said that some mistook it for a miracle. Many told him they expected the rock would become a Southern California icon and had their cell phone cameras out to prove they had witnessed a piece of local history-in-the-making.

“It’s not a circus, a parade, or a police pursuit,” Pray says. “It’s a 340-ton rock being moved for no other reason than that little word ‘art.’”

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The Meaning of It All: A Conversation-starting object lesson about the nature of Art

Unlike megaliths which were “monuments to gods or history or power,” Govan says, “‘Levitated Mass’ is not referring to anything outside itself. When you walk beneath it, it’s entirely related to you. It’s not a symbol of anything. It’s about what the person is seeing and experiencing.”

Govan says that the curiosity generated by the logistics of the project was as important as the finished work itself. “I think that Heizer very consciously introduces the aspect of engineering into his art in part as a visible way to capture the attention of an American audience who is not always ready to say that anything is art,” he said, “and who might be drawn in by seeing how something works.”

Heizer hasn’t spoken publicly about the sculpture, but Govan offered a glimpse behind the curtain: “Michael jokes that you never see the bottom of a sculpture,” he says. “That’s the part that’s always hidden. Now you’ll get to see it.”

About the author

Kristin Hohenadel is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in publications including the New York Times, Slate, Los Angeles Times, Vogue, and Elle Decor.

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