Thursday, July 12, 2012

Michael Heizer's Big Rock in Los Angeles

Is a rock art? I am in Los Angeles this week, so I had to see the Big Rock, not because I thought it would be a great piece of art, but because I wanted to say I saw it. That's the truth. It's really called "Levitated Mass," and it is a project by Michael Heizer that has been installed as a monument in the park outside the Los Angeles County Art Museum. But as Michael Govan, the CEO of LACMA and the Wallis Annenberg Director is quoted in "The Long Road to Levitated Mass" in LACMA's journal, Insider (Summer 2012, vol. 6, iss. 2), "The real monumentality of this piece is the slot—it's a block-long negative form." The 340-ton rock rests across this slot, which is one-and-a-half football fields long. Because of the slot, the public can walk under the boulder.

Before I visited, I felt fairly dismissive of the piece until I read more about it. Levitated Mass takes its place alongside other heavy monuments. In 1882, a 71-foot, 244-ton Egyptian obelisk (complete with hieroglyphics) was installed as "an artistic memorial of an ancient civilization" (quote from above article) in Central Park just outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. A similar one was already erected in London, in the city of Westminster, in 1878. An Egyptian obelisk stands in Paris, in the Place de la Concorde (73 feet, 220 tons), placed there in 1836, the previous site of a guillotine. The Pope has the view of the tallest Egyptian obelisk, which is in front of the Lateran Basilica in Rome (105.6 feet, 522 tons). Creating very tall or very heavy objects always seems like a "guy thing" to me. But the fascination with the large has been going on since at least 1500 B.C.*

Think again and Levitated Mass exists in the context of Land Art as well as marking a place or a celebration of a time. Michael Heizer was one of the first artists working with the earth as an artistic medium, beginning in the 1960s. He and several other artists, each working independently, built their land art in deserts, the scale of which allows for broad and wide and gigantic, so perhaps the large boulder in the city of Los Angeles is an anomaly. Unless you think of the bones of Southern California as a large desert, only well-watered and populated. Rather than the surfeit of open space, the mass of people offsets the mass object. So too, Los Angeles is a big city.

I visited on a Wednesday, when the museum itself is closed. The park gates were mostly shut, with two openings to let interested visitors wander in: on Sixth street off of Fairfax and at the corner of Wilshire in front of the Page Museum. Viewing from a distance, I was surprised to find that the rock looked quite small. The long slot sloping down and under it was indeed impressive. A pair of tiny two-year-olds stood under the rock for a photograph taken by beaming mothers. A few other people (older than two) held up their arms for a trick photo that boasted of Superman's strength. The long approach and the equally long retreat from the pyramid-shaped rock gave the viewer time both to anticipate and to reflect on the experience.

"Levitated Mass" is a good example of how the sheer volume attracts us, the experience changes our perception, and the conceptual elements add to the depth and make it even more interesting. Is a rock art? Not always. But it isn't just a rock.


Many photos from opening day, June 24, 2012, may be found here.
And, as usual, click on my photos for a larger view (though not large enough).


*That last thought prompted me to look up "Women Land Artists" and the first piece I came to was called, "Views Through a Sand Dune" by Nancy Holt, c. 1972. Really? Men make obelisks and women make holes? Okay, okay, not all.

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