“God made the rock. Man made all this equipment,” said a Riverside resident who'd driven to Jurupa Valley, a few miles east of home last night. He and over a hundred others gathered to see a 340-ton granite rock, soon to be part of Levitated Mass, artist Michael Heizer's massive outdoor sculpture at LACMA, depart for L.A. from Stone Valley Quarry. “It's the equipment I'm most interested in,” he said.

The “equipment” consists of a 260-foot long bright red transporter with 196 wheels and 44 axles. It's somewhere between 27 and 32 feet wide, depending on who you ask, and it's pulled by one truck and pushed by another. Four crews, two near the front and two near the back, walk alongside it to make often-needed adjustments — by the time they reach LACMA on March 9, these crews will have walked 105 miles in nine days.

The 340-ton rock loaded up and about to move; Credit: Will Brown Hernández

The 340-ton rock loaded up and about to move; Credit: Will Brown Hernández

The rock hangs near the middle of the transporter and the height of its suspension has to be adjusted using chains and pulleys whenever there's a tight turn or incline in the road. Rock included, the whole machinery weighs about 1.2 million pounds. “I think it's the first time I've heard someone say, 'it weighs tons' and mean it literally,” said film director Will Brown Hernández, who, from the time the crowd started gathering around 9:20 last night to the time the rock made it a quarter of a mile down the road, took enough photos to fill his camera's 8-gig card (you can see them in this post).

“I had hoped we would see them lift it from the quarry,” said Aurora Tang, program manager for the Center for Land Use Interpretation, a Culver City-based think-tank that researches ways people change landscapes. But the rock had already been wrapped in a white tarp, hoisted up and driven out to this official departure point in a lot beside a Shell station. “This is the press release version,” said L.A. artist Michael Decker, who'd driven out with Tang.

A member of the Emmert International crew adjusts the rock's suspension; Credit: Will Brown Hernández

A member of the Emmert International crew adjusts the rock's suspension; Credit: Will Brown Hernández

The story of Levitated Mass began in 1968, when artist Michael Heizer made a sketch. He drew a massive rock balanced above a trench that, he imagined, would look like it sat flush on the ground as you approached, then would appear to levitate as you descended into the hole. He didn't do anything with the sketch for decades. He hadn't found the right rock. Plus, he's notoriously elusive. “Of course he's' elusive,” said an onlooker last night, who'd been told the artist wouldn't be present. “Who else would find a rock this interesting?” So Heizer busied himself with other large-scale projects, most famously City, a quarter-mile-long, quarter-mile-wide complex he's been constructing in Nevada since 1972. Few people have seen it, except by satellite images that show a weird merging of mid-century Modernism with spin-offs on pre-Colombian monuments.

In 2005, Dan Johnston, who owned a quarry in Riverside and knew Heizer, called him: “Michael, I've found your rock.” Johnston had been blasting near the crown of a mountain and dislodged a boulder, a near-perfect manifestation of what Heizer drew almost fifty years before.

With the help of private funding, Heizer purchased the boulder for $70,000. Within the year, LACMA had decided to acquire the as-yet unrealized sculpture. They began to excavate it from the quarry, now under new ownership, in 2007. Around the same time, they began constructing a 456-foot-long concrete-lined gash in the grounds behind the museum's Resnick Pavilion, over which the rock will hover, balanced on two concrete shelves. Emmert International, a company that moves buildings, missiles, and other megalithic things, was hired to engineer the move. The price tag for the whole endeavor hovers somewhere around $10 million, though private donors have footed all bills and LACMA insists the project is more stimulus than economic drain. “It will become a “destination artwork” for local, national, and international audiences,” reads one of the museum's recent releases. “As audiences come to L.A. and to LACMA, this will impact the local economy — everything from restaurants to hotels to gas stations and more.”

While transporter and trench were finished this fall, it took over six months longer than planned to acquire permits necessary to move the rock, always at night and at an average pace of about 5 miles per hour, through 22 cities from quarry to the museum. The final permit was acquired just yesterday — apparently, this last permit had been overlooked, and no one on hand had money to pay for it, so an Emmert employee maxed out his credit card to make sure the rock would move on time.

“It's over the top,” said Mike Myers, assistant city engineer for Jurupa Valley, on hand last night for launch. “The rock might be a little upset because it hasn't been moved in a while,” Myers continued, but mostly, he hadn't thought much about the rock. “It's the machinery that's most impressive.”

The rock en route; Credit: Will Brown Hernández

The rock en route; Credit: Will Brown Hernández

“Seven minutes just to get out of the parking spot,” said a bystander once the rock began to roll. “I just want to see it make a turn,” said another bystander.

“Typical turn time could be 45 minutes,” said Mark Albrecht, project manager at Emmert International, who like his brother, logistical superintendent Rick Albrecht, kept a straight-faced, no-nonsense demeanor up until the rock actually turned out onto the road, with “Oversize Load” trucks in front, cop cars behind and the utilities trucks there to take down and put up telephone and cable poles as needed.

But just past 11 p.m., half-a-mile or so into the 105 mile trek, Rick Albrecht was almost strutting. “We've worked hard to get to this point,” he said, right before he and his crew stopped to adjust the pulleys so the rock could make it up its first small hill without scraping asphalt.

We'll have updates as the rock progresses, and you can follow Levitated Mass on twitter.

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