Over the 10 days it took for artist Michael Heizer's 340-ton rock to travel from a Riverside quarry to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, moving an average 5 miles per hour in a specially built, 260-foot-long transporter, over in France, artist Régis Perray moved 340 grams of dust through Nantes. He loaded it into a tiny toy dump truck and pulled it with his fingers. The dust came from Chartres Cathedral, a place "younger than Heizer's rock, but older than the history of the United States," partly built when, in the year 1145, citizens harnessed themselves to carts and pulled building materials to the site in an act of extreme piety.
Perray didn't mean to critique the enormity of Heizer's rock. Instead, 340 grams displaced ... was an echo and homage on "a French scale." The transport of Heizer's rock has been compared again and again to the moving of historic monoliths — the 1,250-ton Thunder Stone dragged by manpower into St. Petersburg in 1770, or the 800-ton stones moved during the Roman Empire. But to Paris-based Observatoire du Land Art, which commissioned Perray's 340 grams displaced ..., Heizer's project was a product of America's intoxication with the wide-open Western frontier.
Commissioned back in July, when LACMA still thought the rock would move in August, Perray delayed his plans whenever the need for a new permit or change in the route delayed Heizer's project. Perray is most interested in progress, process and effort — in 1999, he traveled to Egypt to sweep clean the pyramids. So his piece finished on March 10, when the 10-day journey ended.
Heizer's sculpture, called Levitated Mass because the granite will sit on top of a 456-foot concrete trench and appear to levitate when you walk through the trench underneath it, won't be done until this spring or summer. But from the hundreds who came out to the quarry the night the rock left, the thousands who followed its trek as it gained notoriety "like the Grateful Dead," as one woman put it, and the sense of culmination felt the night the rock rolled down Wilshire to LACMA, you'd think the journey was the art, not unlike Perray's project. Will we ever see Levitated Mass as just a sculpture?
Absurdly extensive processes have been a part of land art since the 1960s, when artists like Heizer, Robert Smithson and Walter De Maria first started working in "out there" places. Because they wanted the enormous landscape to be their material and museum, they would fly around in helicopters scouting locations, then blast out sandstone or erect rods in fields. But they usually did this in remote locations, so people encountered these feats in the form of reports and rumors. Until now, no land artist had sent a transporter, built by a company that moves missiles and multistory buildings, crawling through urban and suburban streets, creating fanfare that included a "Rockapalooza" party in Bixby Knolls, where children made pet rocks and people consumed Rockstar Energy Drinks.
Heizer was absent during the rock's journey and hasn't talked about it, but odds are he's far more concerned with the final product. He first sketched his rock, hovering above a long slot, in 1968. He imagined it would be around 1,000 tons and would look as if it sat flush on the ground as you approached the slot, then appear to rise as you descended. This remained an idea until 2005, when his friend, quarry owner Danny Johnston, blasted a solid granite boulder out of a mountainside. Johnston called Heizer. "I've been looking for this for 30 years," the artist said when he saw it.
Heizer once was willing to let nature take its toll on his work but now he's fixated on permanence. When art historian Erin Hogan made a pilgrimage to see works by Heizer and others, she didn't even try to see City, the massive, secret complex Heizer has been building since 1972 — "He's been known to chase people off his property with a shotgun," she said — but she saw Double Negative, the two slots he blasted into the Nevada desert in 1969. Originally crisp rectangles in earth, the two deep indentations have begun to deteriorate, which frustrates Heizer. In letters written to patrons in the 1970s, he described sculptures able to withstand even nuclear attack, and he he has considered reinforcing the sides to restore their shape. "How someone could create a work out of completely organic material and expect it not to change over the course of 40 years is somewhat beyond me," Hogan mused in a 2009 lecture.
Talk of permanence is at odds with the changeable character of most land art, so refusal to accept change makes Heizer weirdly compelling. "I'd like to believe he's a megalomaniac," says artist Leia Jervert, who became enamored of Heizer when she was 19. "But I think he's just an introvert."
Plus, these days, permanence is out, while ephemeral is in. Artists talk about their process being part of their work, and they're interested in making art out of fleeting social interactions. Few would move an artwork through multiple cities and not see its related encounters as integral to the piece.
Coincidentally, while the rock traveled through SoCal, Turkish artist Serkan Ozkaya — who's 30 years younger than Heizer — was having his smaller but still imposing 30-foot replica of Michelangelo's legendary nude David shipped by semi from New York to Kentucky. Ozkaya made his David because he likes the idea of exerting extreme effort and creating fanfare around something that's not even original. So when the semi got in the wrong lane crossing New York City's Washington Bridge, stopped traffic and angered a cop ("I think he was provoked by the nakedness he saw," said Steve Wilson, who founded 21c Museum, where David was headed), it all played into Ozkaya's project in provocation.
Land artists today, like Fritz Haeg with his urban agriculture, Alexandra Mir with her fleeting earthworks or Perray with his dump truck, are deferring to nature rather than dislodging it, says environmentalist Char Miller, who wrote about Levitated Mass for KCET's website.
He was as fascinated by the spectacular transport of the rock as everyone else. "In Los Angeles, where mobility is so important, the idea of movement, and closing down streets, may have been more impressive than the art installation itself, which is static," he says. Still, he adds, "That was not the artwork," though maybe he wishes it was. "It was a feat of technology."
LACMA director Michael Govan admits that the engineering, bureaucratic maneuvering and arduous route that got the rock to LACMA are "fascinating, riveting," but says they will become less and less a focus as time goes on. "It's not part of the meaning of the piece," he says. "I'm banking on this being of lasting importance." He imagines people coming to see it hundreds of years from now.
"I wouldn't expect an artist born in 1990 to make something like this," Govan acknowledges. But that doesn't make Heizer's project — which cost $10 million in donations — irrelevant. Govan sees Heizer as furthering our "appreciation of nature," giving people a focused way to experience nature's daunting vastness in a way other artists don't.
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Heizer is on his way to LACMA, where he will oversee the placement of his rock. Emmert International, the company that built the transporter, is finishing a 700-ton gantry, a steel structure to lift and lower the boulder. Then all equipment will pull out, and the artwork will stand alone.
So what will the piece mean in the end? It's still a matter of speculation. Artist Richard Walker, who, in his gentle 2010 video Hierarchy of Relevance, plays a cymbal in the shadow of a desert boulder, wonders if the piece attempts the impossible by bringing the landscape to the museum.
"We all know that if we get in a car and drive 200 miles, we'll see structures that far exceed 'the rock' in terms of impressiveness," he says. "It seems so futile — and this is its value, I think. It's inextricably linked to the human endeavor. It's like a sigh or something."
When I visited the slot, months before the rock arrived at LACMA, it felt like Levitated Mass would contradict its surroundings: Next to the busy newness of LACMA's Resnick and Broad buildings and Miracle Mile's functional structures, the sculpture's main ambition will be to keep existing regardless of what happens next, a goal that's relatable and beautiful.