Sunday, February 21, 2016

Is It Art? "Levitated Mass"

Above is the biggest exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.  It is described as a sculpture, and its name is "Levitated Mass."

As you can see, it is a very large rock -- a 340-ton piece of granite.  The artist located it when it was exposed on a blast site east of Los Angeles in 2007.  He proposed moving the rock to the museum, and the museum director, a major fan of the artist, agreed.

The relocation was accomplished in 2012 in a major effort that involved transporting the rock in a journey that took 11 days and required moving and then replacing electrical lines, traffic signals, cable wires and other impediments all along the route.

Below is a sketch of the contraption that moved the rock very, very slowly on the 105-mile trip to its new home.    

The original plan was for the boulder to seem to float in air above the walkway.  Seismic concerns intervened, unfortunately, and the rock now is secured by guy wires and metal buttresses attached to the trench walls.

Since no actual "sculpting" was performed on the boulder, "Levitated Mass" might be described more fairly as a triumph of engineering.  It took a lot of careful planning to lift and move the rock, as well as to design the trench and secure the exhibit in its new home.

The artist has compared "Levitated Mass" to emplacements like Stonehenge, and said he expects the boulder to last 3,500 years.  Nature formed the rock 150 million years ago.

Total cost of the installation, which was paid by donors, was about $11 million.

Levitated Mass Today

Last week I went to see "Levitated Mass."  Here are some pictures.

People arriving at or leaving the museum walked through the trench.  It seemed to be most popular with children, who do like to run and make noise before or after museum visits.  (LACMA is not the largest museum in the world, but it is darned big and requires at least several trips to absorb its various collections.)

An item as large as the boulder requires a large site to itself, and so "Levitated Mass" sits on a 2.5-acre lot covered with crushed granite.  The only vegetation is a line of 24 palm trees that define the area's boundary.

When I was there, people were coming and going in small groups.  Most walked through the trench to the far side and then back again.  Nobody set foot on the desert-like grounds, which may be appropriate for such a display but are also rather unwelcoming.

One fun trick when visiting the sculpture is to pose for a photograph in which you appear to be holding up the boulder.  Many, many of these have been posted on Instagram.

Two full-time museum guards keep watch over "Levitated Mass."  Their chief job is to tell children to stop running on the narrow sides of the concrete trench; the guards also ward off skateboarders and graffiti taggers.

I asked one of the guards what she thought of the display.

"I like it," she said.  "I don't have 340-ton rock in my backyard."


Last year, a local arts writer reflected on "Levitated Mass" after many trips to the museum during its three years on the site.   

"Each time, I'm impressed by its power and weightiness — by its sheer neolithic presence," she wrote. "Often, it can make objects in the galleries seem almost trivial. What's a 400-year-old painting when you're staring at geological time?"

Still, she declared herself "underwhelmed by the walk underneath 'Levitated Mass.'"   Her favorite view of the sculpture was out the windows from inside the museum.  


My art education is limited, and this display raises questions for me.  Here are a few:

     ---Is the big rock art, or is it something else?

     --Is its artistic merit greater when viewed from a human-constructed building or on its
        own in the middle of an artificial arid site?

     -- What about all those rocks in Zion National Park or Yosemite or the Sandia Mountains;
         are they art or nature?

     --Does human participation in the form of joke photos validate "Levitated Mass" as an
        artistic expression or turn a granite boulder into something more like the exploitation
        of a caged animal at a zoo?

Next:  The Artist

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