Levitating the Archaic Mind with Michael Heizer's "Levitated Mass" at Los Angeles County Museum of Art


During the Neolithic Age, there were human societies who erected megalithic structures to mark the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. When the sun rose, its rays streaming through post-and-lintel structures, as at Stonehenge (constructed between 3100 to 2000 BC), in just the perfect calculated arrangement, it was a time when the Earth and the Sky met, when the gravity of earth pulled downwards the life of the sun, celebrating fertility. In this sacred geography, the physical and spiritual worlds met and departed. Today, the Western mind may view the ritual as fascinating but quaint, as there's no business plan attached to it.

The Sun rising over Stonehenge on the morning of the Summer Solstice, June 21, 2005. A crowd of between 14,000 and 19,000 people watched the sunrise from the ground. This photograph was taken a couple of minutes after sunrise, and a little to the right of the solar alignment line. Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Michael Heizer's "Levitated Mass," a permanent installation scheduled to open to the public on the campus of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Sunday, June 24, 2012, is just four days after this year's solstice on June 20th.

Sketch by Michael Heizer for 'Levitated Mass' at Los Angeles County Museum of Art. © 2012 Michael Heizer. Image from Los Angeles County Museum of Art's website.

In light of this date, the process behind the creation of the work, and even its proximity to the La Brea Tar Pits from which thousands of millennia old bones have been excavated, it is hard not to envision the project as a contemporary revival of creating something sacred, though secular, within the confines of a world where everything seems to have its price.

La Brea Tar Pits next door to Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Image courtesy of Tyler Stallings.

There are many parallels between the archaic and the contemporary, which can be seen, by example, in what we have surmised from studying the development of Stonehenge. It is has been estimated by archaeologists, such as Mike Parker Pearson, leader of the Stonehenge Riverside Project, that it took nearly 1,500 years to construct Stonehenge through its various stages.

For Stonehenge, sarsen granite blocks, one of the densest and hardest of stones, were transported from southwest Wales, some two hundred miles away. One theory about the distant source of materials, developed by a research team associated with the Royal College of Art in London, is that this particular granite sounded like bells when struck by another stone. In essence, spirits would seem to be living in the rocks and speaking. Thus, these particular stones had-to-be-had.

Similarly, in what now seems a legend in the making, as the story has become repeated often in newspaper articles, Heizer conceived of his project in 1968, and has been looking for the perfect boulder since that time. Then one day in 2006, someone from the prior owner of the quarry, Paul J. Hubbs Construction, contacted Heizer, as he was someone with whom Heizer had worked in the past, and said that the "perfect rock" was there. It had been blasted off a hillside at what is now Stone Valley Materials. But it was too big and solid for the quarry to use it for their purposes of producing concrete aggregate and sand. So it sat there, nearly two-stories tall at 21 feet in height and weighing 340 tons.

View of boulder at Stone Valley Materials, Jurupa Valley, California before pick up for transport to LACMA. Image courtesy of Google Maps.

View of Stone Valley Materials, Jurupa Valley, California, showing location of Heizer's selected rock and hillside from which it came, June 2012. Image courtesy of Tyler Stallings.

Once Heizer was alerted of the rock's existence and after checking it out at the quarry when he was there to select big rocks for other projects, and seeing its resemblance to the rock in his early sketches from 1968, he contacted Michael Govan, LACMA's director. Govan has been quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying, "Mike was calling from the Ontario airport and said: 'I found this amazing rock,'" Govan said. "He referred to it as the Colossi of Memnon and compared it to the great pink granite Egyptian obelisks for the quality of the stone. He said it was one of the greatest rocks he'd ever seen."

The legend of its find seems to increase with each article because Govan has become the de facto spokesman for Heizer on this work, in light of the artist's reluctance to engage with the media. In other words, without Heizer's direct answers, then interpretation and guesswork will abound, thus, adding to "the mystery of the rock."

In the time of Stonehenge, hundreds of people would be required to transport just one stone, taking weeks, months, and perhaps years. Trees would be felled on site in order to create a rolling track -- this was a time just before the use of the wheel as a widespread method of transport.

For Heizer's rock, the Oregon-based company, Emmert was hired to transport the rock from the Jurupa Valley, just west of the city of Riverside, for its 105-mile journey to the LACMA campus. It went from a dusty, lowly populated valley in the Colorado desert to the Mid-Wilshire district in Los Angeles, a strip once called the Miracle Mile for its quick rise to commercial prominence in the first half of the twentieth-century. Just as the sarsen stone would have been transported through a variety of rival, tribal territories, the rock was carried across four counties: San Bernardino, Riverside, Orange, and Los Angeles, and twenty-two cities. However, there were no reported incidents of tribal warring. No arrows were shot, stones thrown, or even bartering for passage, other than with city permits.

Akin to felling the trees for transport in the ancient past, a rolling technology for Heizer's boulder had to be developed on site. Emmert is a company that moves "what other people don't want to or can't handle...like nuclear power plants," according to Emmert engineer Rick Albrecht in a video produced by LACMA that documents the rocks transport. The solution by the company was to bring huge, steel trusses that sat on either side of the rock and then steel cables were wrapped under and cradled it during transport. In the end, the transporter was 200-feet long, had 176 wheels, and moved at a top speed of 8 mph through southern California.

As in the ancient past, and during such a long journey for hauling the sarsen block, I'm sure that there were moments of celebration, especially when an especially hard obstacle was overcome. Similarly, at one stop in Long Beach's Bixby Knolls neighborhood, a block party was held with thousands of people in attendance. On videos, you can see people coming up to touch the rock. The fact that it was shrunk wrapped in white plastic to protect the rock added an air of mystery to it. What could be so special about this rock, after all?

After eleven days of travel in March, the rock arrived at the LACMA campus, where it was installed on a 456-foot-long concrete slot near the museum's Resnick Pavilion. Once on site, the museum's context as a showcase for art from around the world and different time periods, along with Heizer's artistic intent, transformed an unusable rock at a Riverside quarry into the sculpture, "Levitated Mass."

Four days after this year's summer solstice on June 20, 2012, people will gather at "Levitated Mass" on June 24. Visitors will be able to walk down from either end of the slot, slowly descending to a center point, fifteen feet under the boulder, where it will have the feeling of being lighter than air, hence, "Levitated Mass."

As visitors walk under it, they may contemplate the geomorphology of Earth as shaped by land (tectonic plates), wind (Aeolian), water (fluvial), and fire (volcanism). Others may consider the work in an art historical context, thinking it radical that they can view its base, as this side of sculpture is usually relegated to facing a floor or a pedestal. Perhaps there will be some new actions by The Aetherius Society, based just a few miles north in Hollywood. This is a spiritual group that was founded in 1955 and one of their main tenets is to charge selected Holy Mountains with prayer, like spiritual batteries, in order to uplift and heal the world. Maybe they will want to pray around "Levitated Mass" and charge the boulder?

Reflecting on a lineage with sacred sites of the ancient past, LACMA's director, Michael Govan, says, while visiting the rock in the quarry before its transport, "There's a very ancient tradition in ancient cultures ranging from Egyptian cultures to the Olmec in Mexico of moving monoliths to mark a place. And I think the idea is that LACMA's campus is a multicultural center of Los Angeles and this rock will mark this in a weighty and timeless manner."

Interestingly, Heizer's sculpture sits on the opposite side of Chris Burden's "Urban Light" sculpture on Wilshire. His work is a gridded placement of old street lamps with varying heights, as if to suggest the congestion of an urban environment but also the excitement of not knowing what's around the corner of a building, along with evoking the magic that city lights can produce at night. Then in LACMA's "backyard" there will be Heizer's "Levitated Mass" now. There, it feels like a sculpture that one might find in the desert: an arid landscape allowing distant viewing of monumental, geographic features.

Megalith slated to become part of Michael Heizer's 'Levitated Mass,' arrives at Los Angeles County Museum of Art, March 10, 2012. © 2012 Michael Heizer, photo by Tom Vinetz. Chris Burden's 'Urban Light' is in the foreground to the lower left.

It shares kinship with his other site-specific, land art sculptures such as his 1969 work "Double Negative," in which he moved tons of rock to create ramps at Mormon Mesa in a remote area of southeast Nevada, and is now owned by The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA). Ironically, neither this work nor the artist are included, at Heizer's request, in MOCA's current exhibition, "Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974," on view through September 3rd.

Earthworks or Land art were works created in nature, merging with the landscape, rather than plopped upon it. Many of the works were created in the deserts of Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Arizona. Rising out of conceptual and minimalist art, it was in part a reaction against the commercialization and decontextualized containment within the walls of galleries and museums. Perhaps Heizer still adheres to this principle?

Coincidentally, thirty years ago, another artist, Lewis deSoto, now based in northern California, but who was born and raised in Riverside created a project that looked at the history of another granite hill, not far from Jurupa Valley, that was turned into the materials for cement.

deSoto's fascination with transformation of sacred landscapes can be found in a seminal, early, photo-based project, created just out of graduate school, and exhibited at UCR's California Museum of Photography, "The Tahualtapa Project," 1983-1988. Its name refers to "The Hill of the Ravens" in Cahuilla lore. The mountain in the San Bernardino Valley was later known as Mt. Slover, and for nearly twelve decades, the presence of the California Portland Cement plant in Colton, not far from Riverside, mined limestone and used 3,000-degree kilns to turn it into clinker bricks, and then ground the clinker into cement powder. It was the first such producer of cement in the United States. For this project, deSoto employed in his photographs a running motif that represented the outline of the once existing mountain. In essence, the project explored the theme of how a sacred mountain was transformed by both renaming it and grinding it down into the materials for the cities of a different kind of civilization.

Lewis deSoto, from the 'The Tahualtapa Project,' 1983-1988, photograph and cement stain, custom frame, and raven feathers, 32 x 32 inches, collection of Seattle Art Museum. Photo courtesy of the artist. Tahualtapa means 'Hill of the Ravens' in Cahuilla.

However, this is not to say that although Tahualtapa has been transformed into cement, there is still spiritual power in its transformed state as cement material. Objects are not dead but alive, and should therefore be approached not only with curiosity, but respect. Or as Lewis deSoto said in a January 2012 lecture on his work at UCR Culver Center of the Arts, "Everyday objects have energy too. They can be power objects that carry an idea forward. Nothing is anonymous and everything is authored."

deSoto's use of the word "authored" does remind me that the "earthworks" movement, with which Heizer is affiliated, was a phrase appropriated from the title of a 1965 novel, "Earthworks," by Brian Aldiss, a British science fiction author.

This origin tale for the movement's moniker having come from the science fiction genre makes it unavoidable for me to consider how the future will look back at "Levitated Mass." Today will be the future's past in the end. What will they ask when they look back, like we do with Stonehenge, attempting to interpret its ring of megaliths? What is the rock's purpose? How was it moved? Was it part of a religion? Why did the people feel the need to move it here from a distant quarry? Why couldn't the quarry have been made the sacred site instead?

"Earthworks" is a dystopian story set in a world of environmental catastrophe and extreme socio-economic inequality. In 1967, the artist Robert Smithson took a copy of it with him on a trip to the Passaic River in New Jersey, out of which he published the highly influential piece in 1967, "A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic," a meditation on time and place, the definition of what is sculpture, and on entropy, especially as it relates to the environment: once something is changed, it cannot go back to what it was before.

Cover of the novel, 'Earthworks,' by Brian Aldiss. This is the cover of the 1967 edition that Robert Smithson would have carried with him during his Passaic tour. Image courtesy of Signet (New American Library).

Under Smithson's influence, "Earthworks" became the title of the first group exhibition to gather like-minded artists that was held at the Virginia Dwan Gallery in New York from October 5th to the 30th in 1968. The artists who were included were Carl Andre, Walter De Maria, Robert Smithson, and Michael Heizer, among many others.

So, in homage to Aldiss, Smithson, Dwan, and Heizer, here is one fanciful speculation from the present-me on how future humans -- future citizens of space and beyond -- will interpret "Levitated Mass," attempting to connect their interpretation to the ancient human cultures of 2012:

It does not represent a desire to conquest nature, but rather, in one of the last efforts known at transporting and making a megalith, it represented a desire to reconnect with the sacred, which is the planet itself. However, humans had already pitched the planet beyond the return point of sustaining their lives, as they knew them. But this rock has endured. And human intelligence endured, albeit not in a humanoid form. Rather, we Galactics now live in this and other rocks. We commune with magma down to the planet's core and sense the happenings on the planet's surface. We are unmoving, but ready to sing and talk when another mobile being beats another rock against one of our sides. Then we will talk and sing the story of humankind's primal desire to move elements of the land. How this will be interpreted and acted upon will be the story of these beings, whomever they may be.

"Levitated Mass" will open to the public on June 24, 2012 at Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Visitor information, videos and other information that document the process of its making can be found at http://www.lacma.org. In addition to the permanent installation, a temporary exhibition, "Michael Heizer: Actual Size" will open at the museum and will feature large-scale photographs of Heizer's projects. There is free museum admission from June 24 to July 1 for residents in zip codes along the transport route. It is free to visit Heizer's work during daylight hours when the park is open on which LACMA sits.

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Top Image: Megalith slated to become part of Michael Heizer's 'Levitated Mass,' departing from quarry in Riverside County for transport to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, February 28, 2012. © 2012 Michael Heizer, photo by Tom Vinetz.

About the Author

Tyler Stallings is the artistic director at Culver Center of the Arts and director of Sweeney Art Gallery at University of California, Riverside.
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