Los Angeles

Levitated Mass: ‘Huh? Wow!’ or ‘Wow! Huh?’

"Levitated Mass," installation shot. Photo © Will Brown Hernández, 2012.

This past Sunday, under the beating hot Los Angeles sun, LACMA finally held its inauguration ceremony for “Levitated Mass,” the 340-ton piece of California granite which traveled for 11 days at 8 miles an hour through Southern California, eventually to be placed across a 456-foot long trench in the northwest quadrant of LACMA’s campus.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was there (his speech was mediocre). County supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky was there (his speech was better).  Michael Govan, the museum director, was there (“silver-tongued” is the adjective that comes to mind).  Michael Heizer was also there (he did not give a speech, although he made himself available for questions after the ceremony ended).

Artist Michael Heizer at the opening of his work, "Levitated Mass." Photo © Will Brown Hernández, 2012.

The ceremony marked the climax of a decades-long process, the last six to eight months of which having been picked over by journalists, critics, and the general public — most especially Angelenos, from whom the most common outcry was, “$10 million for a rock?’

As William Poundstone writes for Artinfo, “The reactions to Levitated Mass (of Internet posters who haven’t seen it) might be worth a future doctoral thesis. Initially it was political. Conservatives were itching to condemn it as a waste of taxpayer money, only to be flummoxed by the awkward fact that the money was 100 percent private sector. Liberals faulted it for privileging the dominion of “man” over nature (though having seen it, I tend to read it the opposite way. Who’s on top, humans or rock?) In the past few days, the main thesis of commenters has been that it’s not “levitating,” ergo contemporary art is a con game (“What FREAKING waste of time and money. … Thats’ not Art, It’s STUPID! DUMB!”).”

Security guard at the opening of Michael Heizer's "Levitated Mass." Photo © Will Brown Hernández, 2012.

So now that the rock is in place, and all of the museum’s cards are on the table, what is to be made of the finished product? Was it worth it?

Here are a few complaints: the slot is a little too wide for the mass to feel like it’s levitating. Straddling might be a more appropriate verb. For all the fanfare made over moving such a large mass, it still seems smaller than expected, especially when compared to the trench and the rest of LACMA’s buildings. And the choice to leave the surrounding area bare gives one a curious feeling of emptiness, rather than overwhelming mass and power.

Rock as background. Photo © Will Brown Hernández, 2012.

I brought these complaints up the next day in conversation with an artist friend, who looked at me and said, “Yes, but that’s Heizer, isn’t it? The dramatically anti-dramatic.” This sentiment, along with another from William Poundstone (he quotes Ed Ruscha’s axiom that “good art should provoke a response of ‘Huh? Wow!’ rather than ‘Wow! Huh?'”) struck a chord.

In many ways, Michael Govan and Michael Heizer have achieved the impossible, making a spectacle out of the ordinary.  The rock is a rock. I spoke with Govan about the choice to leave the area surrounding the trench bare, which he emphatically and adamantly argued was a necessity, meant to function as a desert void in a city without enough emptiness of its own, and perhaps he’s right. Amidst its bare surroundings, “Levitated Mass” transcends being mere plop art and invites earnest contemplation, if you allow it.

The crowd under "Levitated Mass" on opening day. Photo © Will Brown Hernández, 2012.

Los Angeles is a city of illusions. Over at MOCA, Jeffrey Deitch seems to have embraced this approach, offering flashy, staged shows that pack in crowds and falter in their substance after multiple viewings (James Franco’s “Rebel” and Cai Guo-Qiang’s “Sky Ladder” come to mind). If that’s what it takes to secure the funding for less popular exhibits, so be it. But congratulations to LACMA for finding a way to wrap it all into one, 340-ton bundle.