LACMA Rock Finally Opens to the Public. But Does It Live Up to Expectations?

Crowd descends into Michael Heizer's sculpture Levitated Mass
Crowd descends into Michael Heizer's sculpture Levitated Mass
Catherine Wagley

"When the rock is installed, will I stand under it and experience its massive weight?" wondered artist Dai Toyofuku, when I spoke with him him back in March. "Will I feel like it might crush me?" The 340-ton granite boulder, soon to be the centerpiece of Michael Heizer's sculpture Levitated Mass, had just made it to LACMA from a Riverside quarry. It had taken 10 nights of travel, moving at about 5 miles per hour, for it to get to L.A., where it would eventually be placed on two steel shelves above a long concrete trench on LACMA's campus. Visitors would be able to walk down underneath the megalith and, as they looked up, it would -- impossibly -- appear to levitate.

The transportation equipment, transportation process, manpower and construction of the trench all cost about 10 million donated dollars, and the rock's journey from Riverside to L.A. captivated people along its route. Bixby Knolls, a neighborhood in Long Beach, threw the rock a block party the day its transporter parked on local streets. People from all over Greater L.A. came out to see it roll down Wilshire Boulevard in the wee hours of March 10. But until yesterday, we had no idea what it would feel like to walk under the rock. We were all just speculating.

Levitated Mass officially opened to the public around 11:30 a.m. yesterday, Sunday, June 24. Press, museum members, neighbors and curious Angelenos began to arrive a few hours before that -- all the coffee the museum laid out was gone by 10:30 a.m. and, if you overlooked the fact that no landscaping or greenery at all surround the Levitated Mass, it felt like a garden party. One woman in a blue and white A-line sundress stood under palm trees, the only things that offered shade, near a man in a white linen shirt and coral pants rolled up to his ankles. If the two of them had just had mimosas in hand, the picture would have been perfect.

LACMA Rock Finally Opens to the Public. But Does It Live Up to Expectations?
Catherine Wagley

Michael Heizer, the reclusive sculptor known for large, hard-to-get-to works in the Nevada desert, conceived of Levitated Mass in 1969 and spent decades looking for the right rock. He was present at the opening, despite rumors that he might opt out. He sat onstage in a cowboy hat and dark sunglasses during the dedication ceremony but didn't say a word. Instead, LACMA director Michael Govan, LACMA board chair Terry Semel, 3rd District County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa did the talking.

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"This is either going to be the best idea or a total screw-up," Semel remembered thinking when Govan first mentioned the sculpture. But now, it's going to make LACMA "the place people come," Semel said. "It's yours, it's ours, and eventually, there will be a train [to get here]."

Transportation was a theme Villaraigosa picked up on. "This [trench]" -- which was at that point empty -- "reminds me of what our streets should look like," said the mayor. Then he made a plug for Measure R, which funds traffic relief and public transit projects.

Zev Yaroslavsky speaks at the dedication ceremony for Levitated Mass.
Zev Yaroslavsky speaks at the dedication ceremony for Levitated Mass.
Catherine Wagley

Yaroslavsky and Govan cared less about streets and transit. "This will expose people to the work you do," Yaroslavsky told Heizer. "Your work is [usually] out in the middle of nowhere. Now it'll be in the middle of somewhere." Govan pointed out that though Heizer might not talk much, his work "speaks very loudly, very clearly to us all." It makes the "impossible" seem possible, though Govan chose a funny example of impossibility: "As Michael [Heizer] said to me once, 'When do you ever get to see the bottom of a sculpture?'"

Then the artist cut the thick red ribbon stretched across the entrance to the slot and led the way down. It felt like a re-enactment of the Red Sea crossing from Cecil B. De Mille's Ten Commandments, though the Israelites didn't stop to take as many iPhone pictures and I don't remember any of them turning back to re-enter the sea once they'd reached the other side. "They're going to have to have a one-way situation," said the woman behind me, as we moved slowly through, "maybe signs with arrows."

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LACMA Rock Finally Opens to the Public. But Does It Live Up to Expectations?
Catherine Wagley

"I'm scared," said a 9-year-old in Ciclavia sunglasses and hot pink sneakers as we went under. You could tell from her voice that she wasn't scared at all, though when we were finally under the boulder, the woman to my right really was scared. "I just want to keep moving," she said. As she squeezed through the crowd, the man to my left stopped to take a call. "I'm right under the rock," he said. "Where are you? I don't see you anywhere."

Above, people posed hugging and touching the rock, or leaned over the edge of the trench to wave at those passing below. "The world's suddenly turned into a bunch of 4-year-olds," said 10th grader Guthrie Savage Friedman, who was about to go from the rock to Chris Burden's Metropolis inside the museum, a sculpture where small cars whiz around an ultra-modern city. "Big rocks and toy cars."

"He's such a cynic," said his mother, Kate Savage.

There were other cynics. The second time I walked through the slot, I came out to find photographers Khoi Nguyen (who contributes to Arrested Motion) and Taiyo Watanabe surveying the sculpture. They were talking about all the people they had seen posing with their hands up, as if holding up the boulder. "It's going to be the new tourist thing," Watanabe said. "It's going to be a Tumblr," Ngyuen said.

But they had hoped for a bit more from the sculpture itself. The trench might be too deep, Ngyuen thought. If you got closer to the rock as you passed under, it would feel dangerous. "You would feel like you're going to get crushed," he explained. "There should be a feeling of dread."

Nguyen wondered about the landscaping, too -- the pure uninterrupted sand and the absence of trees. Govan had made it clear he wanted to bring the desert to LACMA, but why not at least have a sculpture garden or something? "Maybe people will take it into their own hands," Ngyuen suggested. "There might be some sort of intervention, like people might bring their own rocks and start laying them out in the sand." Watanabe laughed, "BYOR -- bring your own rock."

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