Rock of Ages: Michael Heizer's 'Levitated Mass' Isn't Uplifting

The rock chosen for Michael Heizer's "Levitated Mass" at its quarry home in Riverside, CA | Photo: Ed Fuentes/KCET

What's the going price for the prostitution of nature? In the fall of 2011, the art world discovered that $10 million would do the trick.

That's the estimated amount of cash that flush donors, amid a still-gnawing recession, kicked in to underwrite Michael Heizer's latest earth-moving project. Dubbed "Levitated Mass," it is being installed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and will remain as a permanent, outdoor display.

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The installation's name tells part of the story: Heizer will suspend a massive granite boulder - 340 tons are packed into its 21.5-foot-tall frame (for those who like to keep track in pounds, that's 680,000 of them). Its gargantuan size makes "massive" an understatement, which is also the artist's point. To construct something so large as to defy the imagination, so large that it will take eight days to haul this very heavy load from the Stone Valley Quarry in Riverside, CA to its Miracle Mile destination, pushes (crushes may be a better term) the boundaries of what is thought possible. A minimalist Heizer has never been.

LACMA Director Michael Govan talks about Michael Heizer's "Levitated Mass." | Video: LACMA/Youtube

Yet his maximalist impulse is paired with an imperial reach, a chest-thumping sense of conquest: Nature, from which this imposing rock has been ripped, is manipulable, acted upon. Art is what Heizer can forge out of its raw materials, bending them to his will - or, in this case, hanging it in mid-air, a triumph of technology and engineering, a world in suspension.

Aggressive fabrication has been the leitmotif of Heizer's career. Part of a movement known as land or earth art, which grew out of the cultural tumult of the 1960s and 1970s, he is among those for whom the grand gesture of manipulating vast earthen forms served as a protest against the spatial constraints galleries and museums by definition impose: however big their walls, they remain walls; however open-aired their structures, they remain structures.

These artists, including James Turrell and Robert Smithson, rejected as well what they perceived to be the commodification of art, its market and consumption, its price. If you could construct something so colossal it could not be housed in the usual way or sold in the normal manner, well, you had beaten the system.

Of course, you also would have beaten up the very landscape in which you had made your mark. In 1969, for instance, Heizer went to the eastern edge of the Mormon Mesa, not far from Overton, Nevada; spiking out from the landform's southern and northern flanks he dug two deep trenches, 50 feet deep and 30 feet wide, each roughly 750 feet long. The project is called "Double Negative," a title and construct that has led one of its admirers to enthuse:

Those are all good questions. So are these - how do the abstract purposes of these trenches account for the reality of the 240,000 tons of rock, gravel, and sand that were displaced in their construction? How exactly does this earth relate to that art? Did Mormon Mesa - spare, arid, clean - require gross human intrusion to be more artful, more complete?

Similar queries haunt Heizer's monstrous, as yet incomplete "City" - a complex that sprawls across an isolated stretch of desert in Nevada's Lincoln County. At more than a mile long and a quarter-mile wide, its abstract, monolithic structures, and reconfigured and hardened spaces of rock and concrete, have profoundly altered the terrain and its diverse habitats. What makes its gashes, its staggering price tag (which is expected to soar to $25 million), any less obscene than, say, Las Vegas? Hasn't each spatial slashing produced a deeply damaged desert? This project gives new meaning to Double Negative.

Inside a trench of Heizer's "Double Negative" in Nevada | Photo: Chris Fullmer/Flickr/Creative Commons License

"Levitated Mass" exposes anew those concerns about the environmental impact of Heizer's oeuvre, about their masculinized monumentality. True, the enormous boulder was blasted out of working quarry in the foothills of the Jurupa Mountains, hardly a pristine landscape. Yet its ultimate presentation at LACMA - trussed up, harnessed - only reinforces its decontextualized state, its uprootedness. With its geological referents obliterated, its integrity gone, it has become a commodity whose sculptural value is that which Heizer grants it: Now a mass; no longer a rock.

Over the years, there has been "a backlash against the grandiosity and possibly destructive nature of these projects," Ann Landi writes in ArtNews, offering an assessment of Heizer's career and its import. Yet she then explains away the earth artists' schemes by noting that the bulk of them "were under way or completed when environmental restraints were nonexistent and before the general consciousness about ecology had been raised."

In so arguing, she gives Heizer et al., too much cover: From Mary Austin's Land of Little Rain (1903) to Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire (1968), American environmental culture has been infused with a compelling appreciation for the desert's power, its essential quiet and peaceful solitude, a place apart. Heizer was aware of this tradition: "In the desert, I can find that kind of unraped, peaceful, religious space artists have always tried to put in their work." (I know: the irony of his words is chilling).

Landi is correct in this critical respect: One of the most troubling aspects of Heizer's latest work is its anachronistic impulse. Those who today fashion themselves as environmental artists carry none of the Great White Man's Burden that Heizer and his peers hoisted on to their shoulders more than four decades ago. Instead figures such as Alexsandra Mir and Andy Goldsworthy have been creating artworks made of found objects in nature, humble in scale, fragile and ephemeral.

Had he wanted to shock the art world, Heizer might have adopted their more modest affect. We are told, for example, that he had sketched out the idea for "Levitated Mass" in 1968, and has spent the succeeding years seeking the perfect boulder. Once located in that dust-choked wash in Riverside County, he could have startled us all by simply walking away, his project at long last complete.

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, and editor of the just-published "Cities and Nature in the American West." He comments every week on environmental issues. Read more of his columns here.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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