Between a rock and a hard place

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LAMA) has unveiled a new installation that is simply a chunky piece of rock weighing around 340 tons sitting on top of a crevice. Can a rock be art? Sure; one man’s diamond is another man’s rock.
Sheldon Cooper, the socially dysfunctional fictional physicist from the popular TV show The Big Bang Theory, says it best, when shopping for jewellery to make it up to his girlfriend Amy.
“Remarkable. Diamonds, crystallised carbon” he observes. “Every day, people go to the grocery store and come home with sacks full of carbon, in the form of charcoal briquettes, which they toss in their barbecues and set on fire, but just because you have some carbon with the atoms stacked neatly, you expect me to plunk down thousands of dollars.”
It’s hard to argue with the science, given that it is factually correct. This show, entitled Levitated Mass, poses similar moral and intellectual quandaries about what we think of certain things, especially when you either reduce them to their basic component parts or, on the flipside, elevate the routine in a Hegelian abstraction.
What can we extrapolate from a sizeable boulder perched delicately between a long, manufactured trench that is 456-foot-long and 21-foot-high, asks the man behind the work, the artist Michael Heizer.
The reclusive American artist, who is celebrated for his large-scale sculptures and the awkward sounding Land Art movement (also referred to as Earth Art), was surprisingly in attendance to answer the question himself.
“Art is made to memorialise time,” he told Reuters. “A culture is known by its art, not by its science.”
While that may have seemed abstruse, it fell to Michael Govan, director of LAMA, to add suitable context.
“It does make the impossible possible,” he said. “As Michael said to me once, when do you ever get to see the bottom of sculpture?”
To which he added: “To me, it’s better than the ancient sculptures because it’s not about the power of the gods. It’s a monument of our time and of our own place.”
There is certainly something prehistoric about the work, which the 67-year-old originally conceived over 40 years ago. He even piloted a smaller version of Levitated Mass at the time, but the 120-ton stone never ended up where he wanted it to after the crane he was using to position the rock buckled with the weight.
It harks of ancient megaliths that were composed as monuments to gods or as places of mythological importance. Even in an age of ubiquitous information, dominated by a culture of consumption, these ancient relics still intrigue people all around the world, comparable to a puzzle that can’t quite be solved.
What makes Heizer’s work so beguiling is its ability to transport such ideas to a modern world setting, a bridge between the past and present as LAMA explains: “Taken whole, Levitated Mass speaks to the expanse of art history, from ancient traditions of creating artworks from megalithic stone, to modern forms of abstract geometries and cutting-edge feats of engineering.”
In the years that followed, as he produced other seminal works of art that were thematically linked to the boulder over the whole, including Double Negative (1969-70), City (1970), Adjacent, Against Upon (1976) and 45 Degrees, 90 Degrees, 180 Degrees (1984), Levitated Mass kept emerging in his consciousness.
True to the extravagant nature of the project, the journey made by the stone itself has been epic to say the least, taking in the kind of expertise that fine art storage and shipping specialists like Cadogan Tate excel in.
It took around two weeks for the boulder to be transported from a quarry in Riverside Country, California to LAMA. Escorting a weighty rock across busy highways was always going to be challenging, and so, after discussing the art logistics of the project, the 106-mile journey was conducted at an average speed of seven miles per hour.
This in itself added to the cult of the artwork, a sort of pilgrimage of a kind, which saw people rejoice in outbursts of spontaneous celebration every time the truck parked up for a well-earned stop.
In this alone, Levitated Mass is a brilliantly devised piece of work, paying homage to the notion that true art cannot be rushed, it must be allowed to dictate its own evolution. It has managed to enthral people in a way that was never thought possible.
Against a bright summer’s day and a perfect blue sky, the artwork was unveiled to a huge crowd that gathered for an “experience” that is not easily reconcilable. From here on in it’ll exist, not fixed to an era. It is a shrine to the stars.
“See it this week, see it next week, see it all summer, see it next year, see it in 2022 … you get the idea,” LAMA clarifies. “Levitated Mass isn’t going anywhere. 40 plus years after Michael Heizer conceived of the idea, Levitated Mass is finally here to stay.”