Early on in Levitated Mass, the new documentary film by Doug Pray, about the monolithic sculpture of the same name by sculptor/’earth artist’ Michael Heizer, one of the early donors to the project proclaims that “nothing [looks] less like art than a huge boulder.” How that boulder, with a weight of 340 tons, was ultimately transformed into one of the most famous pieces of art of the 21st century, is the subject of this engaging, informative and, yes, artful movie. While some movies benefit from the intimacy of a small screen, this one, with beautiful cinematography and coloration, as well as framing worthy of the artistic nature of its subject, benefits from a theatrical showing that matches its large scale.
Pray wisely doesn’t spend much time on the “but is it art?” question, focusing instead on the ancillary elements involved in blasting, transportation, installation, and finally, reception of the work, the conception of which dates back over 40 years.
When my wife and I lived within walking distance of the LA County Museum of Art, the boulder’s final resting place, we had a front row seat for the hubbub surrounding its final realization. Yet, even though we lived there for another year and a half, we never actually visited the installation. I can’t speak for her, but I know in my case it was due to a deeper fascination with the process than the actual finished project, static in a way the process isn’t.
Pray talks to everyone involved in that process, including the quarry workers who located the boulder and informed the artist about it, the engineers who facilitated the complicated process of moving it from a quarry in Riverside county to its eventual destination, the bureaucrats and even the CHP officers involved in the approval process necessary to transport the boulder through 22 different municipalities that needed to approve the use of its roads, and the many bystanders who observed its journey. The artist, who generally shuns publicity, appears only briefly.
All have interesting stories to tell, the bystanders in particular spanning the range from cynics to fanatics to everything in between, including an amusing number of conspiracy theorists with outlandish theories as to what was “really” under that tarp, or what more insidious intent may lie behind its transportation.
It’s also fittingly established within the film that, like any good work of art, the interpretation often says as much about the interpreter as it does about the work. To the members of a church in Carson near where the boulder had a brief rest stop, it represents the ‘solid rock’ foundation on which their faith rests. To citizens of the economically depressed parts of LA on the rock’s path, it is a waste of funds that could otherwise improve life for many (all funds were privately raised). To the Long Beach neighborhood of Bixby Knolls, its presence was an excuse to throw a party complete with games, photo opportunities, and (you guessed it) a rock concert.
There is much discussion among the art types that the ‘ordinary people’ might not ‘get’ the artistic statement, yet those interviewed, from a variety of ages, races and social backgrounds, are as philosophically-minded as the engineers, docents, and art critics. As one wisely says, “it’s our rock now. It doesn’t matter what the artist thinks.”
“What the artist thinks” barely enters the story, though Heizer’s previous successes, failures, and obsession with detail (as well as, inevitably, engineering skill) are discussed. But the real heart of the story- and of the work- is best expressed by Heizer’s desire to make “American art” – large in scale, requiring intricate planning, feats of engineering, cooperation between the literally hundreds of collaborators necessary to build a 206-wheel tractor/trailer the size of a football field that transported the boulder to its permanent home that, in the words of one LACMA employee, contains two important and valuable components: art and land. Los Angeles, with plenty of each, is its most appropriate final destination, awareness of which is a thematic link between both the work and the movie.
Carolyn’s review can be found here.