Saturday, July 14, 2012

Levitated Mass or Levitated Miss?

LACMA's Very Big Rock --- Or is it a Very Big Nuthun?

When something was over-hyped in relation to its actual presence, my grandmother used to ask rhetorically, "You know what that was?" There would be a pause and she would answer her own question: "I'll tell you what that was. It was a big nothing!"

Would she say that now? 

Famously inched through the streets of LA to LACMA from its quarry in Riverside, Michael Heizer's art installation Levitated Mass now is on view on the north side of the "new" part of the LA County Museum of Art.  Nobody needs yet another picture of it but here one is anyway, mainly because that is a convention of blogging.  (And then two more, since I can't edit my own work very well, so I am not sure which one I like best. Photos were taken Saturday, Bastille Day.)

So it is basically this:

a large rock balanced over a long tunnel.

Okay then.

The current head of LACMA, the articulate and astute Michael Govan, told the LACMA blog how he interprets this piece:

The artist here has created a thoroughly modern artwork, abstract, and challenging the traditional notions of sculpture. I can read it as a series of visual and visceral oppositions: weight and lightness, mass and emptiness, up and down, solid and line, organic and human-made, nature and culture. You will read it your own way. It makes the impossible possible. As the artist said to me: “When do you ever get to see the bottom of sculpture?” For me, it’s better than those ancient monuments because it is not an expression of the power of gods and kings, but rather of people—of the museum visitor that descends into an empty abstract space defined by linear concrete walls to see the monolith from below, virtually levitating in our beautiful California sky.

Sure, I can go for that.  And yet....  And yet....

It seems a lot of fuss about a rock given that rocks, in California, are pretty easy to come by. Yet some of my dear friends and colleagues have never even been to Joshua Tree Park, let alone Tahquitz or Yosemite, so this installation will seem like a great achievement --- wow, yes, a rock. Fabulous . . . unless, of course, one has ever hiked (say) among the glacial erratics along the Tioga Pass Road.

Just as one sounds defensive when making a racial observation and then saying, "Oh, but some of my best friends are black," now I have to rush and affirm, but oh, don't get me wrong: I like rock, I really do.  Only I really DO. I love the feeling of granite especially, in all of its many forms. I even have some rocks in my backyard (brought in on purpose, I mean); not granite, but they will do. We call this "Hoodhenge," and the center column is over eight feet tall and weighs almost a thousand pounds.

My apprenticeship with learning how to read stone started as a teenager, when I began to learn how to rock climb. (Indeed, one of the first things I noticed about the LACMA stone is that it has some good bouldering routes on it.)  In the next picture, here I am as a dropout from Glendale College, wearing wool knickers ---- this was a very long time ago --- and practicing some unroped moves in Wales at Llanberis Pass. A kind Welshman I met while hitchhiking took this picture for me.

So I "get" the value of free-standing stone, and if I were a ja-zillion-aire, would gladly have the LACMA rock in my backyard. It is indeed a lovely piece of very hard dirt.

But my point is that as rocks go, it's not that big, that rare, or that special. One can go to Yosemite and find a few thousand not so unlike it. Some even come with their own snow banks, which can make its own temporal statement as it freezes and thaws.

Add spring's snow melt to rock and it gets even better.

The "levitated mass" feels less hovering than merely clever placed, and from the underside, one can see the necessary bolts running up into the stone from the placement brackets. (I heard an otherwise sane and rational national news anchor, in covering the opening, say that she would never want to be under that rock. What a load of horse pucky. OF COURSE it's going to be seismically placed. LA County is not going to let a museum just toss down an immense boulder and not think about the consequences of what happens if it shifts and squishes some cute little toddler or a basket of kittens or something. In fact, in an earthquake, that might be an excellent place to be --- much better than inside the adjacent May Company building.)

The effect is less massive and more clever, at least to me: the very theatricality of the setting (smart and funny as the under-trough as) lessens the stone-ness of the stone. I had this feeling reinforced by a small display inside the main building, in the entrance hallway to the Photography Department's office. A fellow named Robert Cumming did a lot of large format work of back lot sets during the 1970s, and one of his pictures is of a rock seemingly the size of Levitated Mass, except this rock is a movie prop:

The caption titles this shot Composite Boulder with Lifting Port.

So far as I can tell, one can't yet buy a postcard of the Levitate Mass site in the gift shop at LACMA, but in the ancillary shop that focuses on exhibit catalogues and artist monographs, they had a striking poster --- striking if not very literal.

I guess this poster just goes to show that the Technicolor treatment is not limited to Hollywood spectaculars. (Where is the 3D version?) Nice poster, though it does not seem to have much to do with the piece as it was finally installed.

This art piece is fun and successful and is bringing in new visitors to the museum, so let's take our cowboy hats off and whoop and ride in a circle.

For me, though, I keep thinking of a truly levitated mass --- the immense yet seemingly floating monolith of El Capitan, which at 3000 vertical feet is twice as tall as the tallest building on earth.  (In the photo below, at that scale, LACMA's stone would not even show up on this web page, it would be so small in relation to the rest.) I have never climbed El Cap, though I have done lesser routes along the lower portions, and I like to bring visitors up the climbers' trails to the base of the Nose Route, where one can rest flat against the stone and look straight up at all 3000 feet.  (As a reminder, that's over half a mile of pure, vertical, unbroken granite.  If we could magically excavate the soil from around the base and keep going down to its own foundations, we could double that height.)

I am not saying it's better to go to Yosemite than to LACMA --- I go to both many times a year, and urge the AVC community to do the same --- but I am saying that in reading and listening to the hyperventilating commentary around Levitated Mass, I think some of our cultural critics need to leave Starbucks and go to Stony Point or Vasquez Rocks or Devil's Punchbowl or even just the interior side of Devil's Gate Dam downstream from JPL, which is to say, to get out of the house, out of the normal, and go see just how grand and glorious all the other stones --- the ones NOT brought to Hancock Park --- still are, still can be, still will be in a thousand or even ten thousand years.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Born on the 4th of July

from Gay Pride to Pimp My Ride:
the 4th of July weekend, Antelope Valley

We'll let the fingers do the walking and the pictures do the talking: shots from around the AV on or just before the 4th of July.