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“Levitated Mass”: First Reactions

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1. Ed Ruscha said that good art should provoke a response of “Huh? Wow!” rather than “Wow! Huh?” By that criterion, Michael Heizer’s Levitated Mass is on the right track. It’s nothing like you’ve probably imagined. (Huh?)

2. There was an old Second City Television bit with John Candy, as plus-size drag queen “Divine,” cast in a production of Peter Pan and flying by means of industrial-strength cables. That’s roughly the take of many news story commenters on Levitated Mass. The haters believe they’d been promised a David Copperfield act—or Magritte’s Castle of the Pyrenees run through a Thing-o-Matic.

OK already, it’s 340-ton boulder, and it’s not exactly “levitating.” The rock is supported by two massive concrete walls and two steel shelves. It’s bolted to those shelves. When you stand underneath the rock and look up, you don’t get the sense that the Supreme Court has just thrown out the law of gravity.

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!”)

3. I had anticipated, a bit more realistically than a “levitation,” something like a Turrell Skyspace. Levitated Mass would perhaps focus attention on a strip of sky, with the rock serving as a kind of punctuation mark. Nope. The slot is too wide for that. Though it greatly restricts your view of the urban context, some reference points are visible—the tops of Irwin’s palm trees, for instance.

Another thought was that it would be a ginormous sundial, with a boulder as the gnomon. That would loosely connect it to the calendrical functions of ancient earthworks such as the Great Pyramid and Stonehenge. As the slot is aligned approximately east to west, the position of the shadow will travel throughout the day and the year. Such is the power of L.A. sunlight that the rock’s black shadow is almost as looming a presence as the rock itself. But bottom line… I don’t think that was the intention, either.

4. It’s all about the rock. This must seem an odd claim, since the media attention has focused on that monolith almost exclusively. For the past several months, I have tried to convince all who would listen that the rock is just one element of Levitated Mass, that it’s part of an installation of rock, slot, ground treatment, and site. Having seen the thing up close, I am now inclined to dial that back. On opening day, in summer solstice sunlight, the rock looked fascinating and different from every angle. From some perspectives, it’s a domino about to topple. From others, it’s as stable as the pyramid on the dollar bill (which actually would have toppled, had the Egyptians built one with those too-vertical proportions). It changed appearance as the sun moved, and will surely look different in other seasons and weathers. Levitated Mass is a Chinese viewing stone almost the size of a Monet cathedral.

5. It’s also like a Magritte—not the levitating Castle but the paintings of an apple or rose, of absurd dimensions, invading a human-scaled space.

6. On opening day, the main impression was of the slot’s floor as a road of human life. This is very atypical for land art and isn’t likely to be repeated.

7. No other big-city museum can represent land art on-site like this. It’s nonetheless a high-stakes gamble for LACMA. Tastes change, especially for living artists. Fifty or 100 years from now, will Heizer (and/or land art) be considered so important as they are now? Hard to say. The Hudson River School was once junked; so was Vermeer.

Don’t worry about the $10 million spent on moving the rock. The LACMA of the future can always raise more money. What it can’t do is mint more urban land. In the worst-case scenario, in which Heizer’s reputation dwindles, there will be overwhelming pressure to recover that land for museum expansion, 22nd-century virtual-sculpture installation, whatever. Levitated Mass can’t be consigned to a storeroom. This is a long-term commitment for the millennium of California love.

8. One oft-mentioned comparative is Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate in Chicago (the “bean,” above right). Different as they are, both are big public sculptures one walks under. I’d say the Kapoor has more of an immediate “wow” and risks being more of a one-liner. By the wow-huh theory that’s bad, but Ruscha probably wasn’t thinking of public art. Levitated Mass is a neat counterpoint to Chris Burden’s Urban Light, contrasting the American wide open spaces with urban engagement. It’s hard to say whether it will match Urban Light’s appeal once the novelty wears off.

9. Levitated Mass fits into the American tradition of transcendental-sublime. Its absurd scale reminds me of Thomas Cole’s The Titan’s Goblet (left); also of Carleton Watkins’ photos of Western geologic and botanic grandeur, as wistful surrogates for stone monuments of antiquity.

10. Like Heizer himself, Levitated Mass is a sphinx, refusing to speak on what it might mean. Should an artwork say something or remain silent? Elihu Vedder puzzled over that in Listening the Sphinx, 1863, and Mark Tansey echoed it in Secret of the Sphinx (Homage to Elihu Vedder), 1984.

11. Rock is a dual symbol of permanence and entropy. Shirley Jackson—whose best-known story “The Lottery” is about citizens throwing stones—wrote a curious tale, “The Rock,” about people living in a house carved out of a gigantic rock. “You mustn’t be entirely sure of the rock, you know,” one character warns enigmatically. “Well, it’s been here for a number of years, of course… and rock is a hard thing to get rid of…”

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  1. An amazing installation. But not perfect. I think those stabilizing shelves sort of takes away from the overall effect.

  2. by madeleine gallay

    a flawed installation

    a large pet rock essentially with the trouble of achieving it the germane point

    not essential.

  3. PLEASE tell me those are hydraulics and not just shelves it is obviously sitting on, not levitating at all. And that they stole my idea to turn it into a movieland ride by gyrating and falling, with bloddy clothes and body parts hanging off of it? Nothing else will keep Angelenos of the Hills attention, they are kinda AD/HD.

    Two questions.
    1. Who died and made Ruscha an art prophet?
    2. Since when has land”art” ever been considered important, outside of anemic art academia?


  4. One possible solution. Make the area a Central Park style trees and boulder area, lots of real or fake ones to climb on and make it seem like its actually part of something, and not just wasting space or another entry into the underground parking lot. With no greenery, grass and foliage and shade, gonna be hot as hell out there in the summer.
    Maybe a pond as well, bums in need of urinary relieve and taggers are gonna love it.

    As is, it is the tombstone of Meism and the Age of Excess., not the altar to it as designed.
    Rest in hell, contempt art. Been holding back the evolution of humanity for far too long. A buncha Iblis talking nonsense and retarding art, the visual language. The dumbing down of America began in artschools.

  5. ART???


    A $10 Million folly!

    Seriously, what a waste!

  6. by Cate Conroy

    “The reactions to Levitated Mass (of Internet posters who haven’t seen it) might be worth a future doctoral thesis.”

    Good, then half my work towards a coveted PhD in art history is done. Now, is anyone willing to pay for my graduate school tuition so I can be a legitimate art lover rather than just another one of the ignorant masses who spouts off without anything valid to say? Dare you to defy the laws of socioeconomic order and “levitate” the poor village idiot to a respectable level without pulling any strings. If it’s not working, maybe one of us isn’t concentrating hard enough or the other is as dumb and heavy as a box o’ rocks.

    Okay, then. Wait until my pennies are saved up for a trip to LA. If the rock is still around by then, I will finally have the privilege of experiencing the awe of standing under the megalith, all while “gifting” my tourist dollars to local area businesses.

    Eventually, my turn will come. I’ll get there, even if it means being carried in on a stretcher–which is more than you can say about the haters’ desire to see this work. Looking at the photos and following reports of this project from start to finish should count for something when offering thoughts on what strikes me as some of the themes behind this land art sculpture. Some of my initial impressions of the artist’s concept have been positive, and others not so, but until I’ve experienced the whole of it, I can’t (and won’t) form a full and final opinion.

    Call me skeptical, but not a hater. And don’t get all snarky just because I’m still a “virgin” of the rock experience, but had the gall to contribute to the discussion surrounding it. At least my efforts were an attempt to add something positive to an otherwise (mostly) uncivilized commentary. It’s not the art itself I object to. It’s the idea of calling this particular sculpture a gift to the LA public at a particularly difficult time in many people’s lives. It’s like the people in charge were attempting to give the art some kind of value other than purely aesthetic. Maybe I’m wrong (and that happens often) but, I thought art is meant be enjoyed by everyone strictly for what it is, regardless of its utility or market value, and completely outside of how many tourist dollars it will bring to the community. It seemed from the start that Levitated Mass was being touted as a “gift” in that it would bring more money to LA and visitors into the museum. I wonder if it will be successful in that regard, or if it will be successful on its aesthetic artistic merits alone, and how one might measure the difference.

  7. Its the “new” old Venice Pavilion, hot spot for local “street” artists and taggers, Among their fellow ilk, skateboarders and pot smokers and their future. The panhandler, who will find the “gifted” latrine a lovely thought as to their welfare.

    Thanks oh wonderously mental-ly gifted LA patrons of the arts! Your specialness is duly noted. And the coming ages shall surely sing your praises, After shopvacing out the latrine on a daily basis. The rock of ages shall surely take on a patina of various colors of metallic hue and cry, and urine stained sheen.

  8. by Mars Violet

    not Huh?.. more like Meh.

    A waste of $10 Million, private or otherwise, is still a waste.

  9. I admit I’m a closet fan of the rock. Yet I do chuckle when people become so indignant about or dismissive towards it, in part because I perfectly understand their point of view. In other words, yes, there is a slice of the “emperor has no clothes” aspect of the work. That’s why I’m therefore somewhat sheepish to say the admittedly au-courant, dorky-hipster nature of Heizer’s work also makes me smile and tune into what I consider its whimsical side. So much so, and surprisingly enough, if I were a wealthy philanthropist, I’d have kicked in some money for the project.

  10. When it gets reworked with graffiti, will it get a new name or spin?

  11. Nice piece! The rock made much more sense to me when I saw the gash in the ground that people walk under — I had envisioned something less grandiose, allowing only a few very small people (or kids) to walk under. It reminded me immediately of Lin’s Vietnam memorial, but with a completely different color palette (and I think the lack of greenery relative to Central Park gives the piece some of the grandeur that we associate with most land art that was built in isolated spaces. To frame it as an element in 19th century landscape would ruin that.)

    It seems like LACMA’s MO with their outdoor installations, temporary or permanent, is to be able to entertain adults and, importantly for the weekend crowd, kids also. Things have to be durable and playful, kind of awe-inspiring in an obvious way, with hopefully something more to follow (going back to your Ruscha quote). There’s nothing wrong with that, I think, and it’s very particular to LACMA — I don’t remember any NY museums except perhaps PS1 being so much a cross between a general social space and a museum — though it makes it very difficult to go there on a weekend and have a nice meditative experience.

    Anyway, appreciated your ruminations on the subject. I actually sought your site out to see if you had any feelings on the firing of MoCA’s curator.

  12. If there’s a metaphysical dimension here concerning the $10 million price tag, it must mean something that this “waste” is a solid, identifiable and largely “mute” object and that most $10 million dollar wastes (or multi-billion, as per Facebooks IPO and JPMorgan’s recent woes) happen at such an unimaginable scale, in the blink of an eye, with money that has not even been printed, across continents at the whim of a bunch of people we will never meet or even have a drink with. (The analogy of human “waste” just struck me reading my first line… well, I’ll go with that… it certainly suggests how non-human, nearly Platonic, dealing with digital currency, credit and speculation etc. is compared to the (largely wrong) belief that people earn “money” that is of durable, concrete value which the government takes away when taxing them — in fact, all money is a reflection of the government.)

  13. People complain about the “waste of money” but– that money paid some workmen’s wages for a good long while, and quite a lot of it went to support the infrastructures of many a small town’s road systems.

    When you spend money, it goes somewhere. In this case a lot of it stayed right in the area.

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