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Levitating a Monolith, Russian Style

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The LACMA-bound boulder, to be the focal point of Michael Heizer’s Levitated Mass, will be the largest moved monolith in the Western Hemisphere. But it’s not the biggest humanly moved rock by a long shot. Consider the 1250-ton Thunder Stone in St. Petersburg, Russia. It’s the base for the famous Bronze Horseman, Étienne Maurice Falconet’s equestrian statue of Peter the Great (1782). Besides being over three times heavier, the Thunder Stone has a green credential the Heizer Rock lacks: It was moved by human power only.

Catherine the Great had married into the royal line and grabbed the reins of power before her late husband’s body was cold. She decided she needed a heroic statue of Peter the Great to legitimize her rule. Her art-advisor friend, Denis Diderot, suggested Falconet. The project came to encompass a red granite boulder as pedestal. The chosen boulder had to be moved four miles and then carried by barge up the Neva River. A 1770 color engraving by I.F. Schley after a drawing by Y. M. Felten (top of post; via the Observatoire du Land Art), gives the basic method.

The first thing you notice about the print is that there are people riding on the rock. A lot of people. Falconet wanted to shape the rock to emphasize its resemblance to a cliff. Since the shaping would reduce the weight, the sculptor figured it would make sense to do it before the move. Catherine was too impatient for that. She decreed a fast-track plan in which stone cutters would work the rock even as it was being pulled by Russian muscle.

The transport method, devised by Greek-Russian engineer Marinos Carburis, had the boulder resting on ball bearings—bronze spheres about 6 inches in diameter—that sat in metal tracks. The bottom part of the track had to be continually torn up from behind and rebuilt in front of the slowing advancing rock. To pull the rock forward, two teams of 32 strong men rotated a spool that wound up cables attached to the boulder. The move began in Russian winter, lest the boulder and apparatus sink into the marshy soil. The Thunder Stone took nine months to get to St. Petersburg.

A few comparatives:

Weight of granite boulder: Maybe 1500 tons or more, originally, and 1250 as reduced (St. Petersburg) v. 340 tons (Los Angeles)

Length of transport apparatus: 330 ft. of track (St. Petersburg) v. 200 ft. transporter (Los Angeles)

Length of route: 14 miles, of which 4 were on land (St. Petersburg) v. 105 miles on surface streets (Los Angeles)

Daily progress: 1/10 mile per day (St. Petersburg) v. 9.5 miles per night (Los Angeles)

Cost of the move: a claimed 70,000 rubles (St. Petersburg) v. an alleged $10 million (Los Angeles). I don’t know what a ruble was worth in 1769-70. Today 70,000 rubles is only $2385.

Artist’s visibility: Zero (St. Petersburg and Los Angeles). Reported the L.A. Times: “Noticeably missing from Tuesday night’s festivities marking the beginning of the rock’s trip was the reclusive artist, who lives in Nevada. ’There’s nothing he can really do to help now,’ said LACMA Director Michael Govan. ‘But he’s excited.’”

Falconet was not present at the completion of the Bronze Horseman (below, Vasily Ivanovich Surikov’s painting of the monument). He’d had a falling out with Catherine. In later years, Catherine spoke of the Bronze Horseman as a creation of her own incomparable genius, and Falconet’s name was not to be spoken.

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  1. As i have said before, Hizzer is an excellent base maker. Everything he does is table and trench. Put stuff on it, or over it. But still needs stuff. Where is the stuff? I propose making it into a chia pet. Or the street artists will have a rock to piss on.

  2. by Catherine the Cheese Grater

    The base that a guy named Peter (or any art) stands on is only as solid as the artist who created it and the stuff that sits atop it. In the case of Michael Heizer’s rock, this base will eventually be all there is to see, with an empty vacuum above and below it. All eyes will remain on the rock and the artist’s name plaque. In time, the unnamed laborers who orchestrated the move will be forgotten by the public. Once the rock is installed it won’t truly be levitating, but made only to appear that way. In that sense, we must be scientifically inclined to believe that the rock is not and does not “matter.” It is immaterial–and irrelevant. It’s the moving of it that matters. The backs of the laborers and planners who toiled to get it on display–they are the work of art, these people are the “stuff,” the solid and relevant part of this whole project. They should all be named and acknowledged in some way, at the very least. As for the rock base itself, it would have been better to shred it first, and then levitate the cheese.

  3. Didn’t know about the Thunderstone in St. Petersburg. Very interesting comparison with Levitated Mass. While the environmental impact of moving Thunderstone is ‘greener’ in that it was human powered, there is the case that most of the labor wasn’t voluntary in the days of Czar.

    I did some rough estimates of the carbon emissions of moving Levitated Mass versus the 456-foot slot here:

  4. Dear William,
    Thanks for the link.

    Dear Donald, please try to write correctly the name of the artist. Maybe it is a clue that you don’t know him very well…

    Dear Barry,
    Levitated Mass carbon emissions are a bucket in the ocean compared to the duration of this piece. It is exactly the same problem about the euro Debt. If you calculate what a state have to pay for a couple of months, it is amazing; but now, if you calculate for several years, it is quite normal. One should never forget that Heizer’s earthworks is built for the Millenium. It is not a art fair lasting for a week…
    On the other hand, it is easy to say that yesterday was better than today. But when you wants to travel to see friends or relatives outside of USA, is it not easier to take a plane than to cross planet earth by swimming? And maybe less dangerous (see Bas Jan Ader experience…) And if we really want to save carbon, we should switch off all our computer to be really honest.

  5. Like most contempties, you have no sense of humor, inspite of your innate absurdity.
    And destroying earth is not art, it has no purpose, and so desecrates what you claim to honor.

  6. Dear William,
    Here is the “prehistoric story” of Levitated Mass, now updated: http://obsart.blogspot.fr/2012/01/levitated-mass-1968-1983-pre-history.html
    But also still in progress, of course, because we are focusing on Heizer’s art, the “in-progress-artist par excellence”…..:-)

    PS: we add a smiley for Donald.

  7. Carbon emissions are irrelevant. The models put forward lack verisimilitude, and all the predictions are falling flat on their face.

    Carbon accounts for only 0.5% of the atmosphere, to that humans add a *few parts per million*. Any temperature raise is proportional to the *fourth root* of how much extra energy is put into the atmosphere. Good luck raising that temperature with a few parts per million.

    The whole theory is a crock to levy taxes on people. Carbon Taxes, Carbon Police, Carbon Footprint. Goldman Sachs have set up the Chicago Global Climate Exchange, so they can make money out of trading nothings (carbon credits) as usual.

    If you buy into this Carbon BS you need to really re-think it, as you are being duped. Many scientists have now come out and stated flat out that the theory is a failure – science needs to move on. Too bad there are a lot of vested interests in this field now that can’t let it go…

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