Why LACMA’s 340-Ton Boulder Is Good for the Economy

Photograph by Ringo H.W. Chiu/AP Photo

On Friday night the streets of Los Angeles turned into a cut scene from Cleopatra, with a 340-ton boulder playing the part of Liz Taylor. In place of dancing Nubians and studio-bankrupting pyrotechnics, a peanut gallery of meme-hounds, bar fiends, and city officials watched as the massive monolith, which is the centerpiece of Michael Heizer’s soon-to-be-unveiled work Levitated Mass, turned onto Wilshire Boulevard and made its way to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Over the next couple of months, it will be delicately balanced in a 456-foot-long concrete trench 15 feet deep so that art-goers can walk beneath the megarock as it appears to float above their heads. The complexity of the task has already earned comparisons to Stonehenge, although LACMA Director Michael Govan says the sculpture’s positioning was largely pragmatic: “It’s not determined by the stars or anything,” he says. “Just by the placement of a parking garage underneath and the length of the property—but it has a really beautiful angle to it.” The final piece will represent a major work by Heizer, one of the founders of the monumental land-art movement. He’s best known for Double Negative a 1500-foot trench cut in the Mormon Mesa in Nevada, as well as City, a temple-like faux-Mesoamerican complex he’s been constructing in the wilds of Nevada for the past 30 years. While seeing these masterpieces can range from difficult to impossible, Levitated Mass is intended to be a representative Heizer work that’s easily accessible to urban art patrons—and an ultra high-class roadside tourist attraction.

The rock will also contrast with LACMA’s other signature artwork across the park, Chris Burden’s Urban Light. According to Govan, the two works represent the megalopolis’s twin nature as an eons-old, geologically active landscape overlaid by urban sprawl. However, perhaps more than anything, the eminently unrolling stone is the latest star whose charismatic gravity has bent the fabric of the city around it. Govan had to coordinate with four counties, 22 cities, and their various Byzantine bureaucracies just to transport the stone 60 miles (as the crow flies) from the Riverside quarry where Heizer found it to the heart of Los Angeles. Emmert International, a company specializing in heavy-haul transportation, built a custom, 200-foot rig—with 176 wheels that distribute the stone’s weight evenly—to earn it the necessary certification as road-worthy by Caltrans and the California Highway Patrol. Viewing the transporter at rest, you can see the results: All the tires are uniformly depressed, even those farthest from the rock nestled in the center. When two 600-horsepower tractors are attached at front and rear to move it, the rig is nearly the length of a football field.

The greatest challenge of all, however, might have been convincing a rainbow of city bureaucrats that transporting the rock wouldn’t damage their municipalities’ roads: “We worked with them, and it was mountains of engineering that we had to produce to prove to people who weren’t used to seeing this—we had to painstakingly hand-walk them through it until they absolutely understood it,” says Emmert Project Manager Michael Albrecht. “And they still had one eyebrow up.” Planning the route required precision that came down to inches, especially as the rock made its last turn, from Western Avenue onto Wilshire in L.A.’s Koreatown.

The whole piece will cost around $10 million, most put forward by private donors; critics have painted the undertaking as a reckless waste of money in a recession. Govan, however, points out that it’s actually much closer to Keynesian pump-priming. The money spent isn’t being sent abroad to procure a work, he says, but injected into the local economy; the tourism that the final piece will spur should generate further economic activity, much like President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression: “The concept of the WPA was not to buy art from museums in Europe. They were making art with artisans and workers [here] … and when a person travels to a place and spends money, the multiplier effect is huge.”

Still, noble intents belie the essence of the sculpture and its raison d’être. There’s something indescribably sublime in seeing a fragment of creation nestled in the handiwork of man as it’s moved into aesthetic captivity to dazzle generations and provoke questions. Put more simply, it’s cool. Even Govan seems to admit that the soul of the piece ultimately comes down to a matter of beauty: “It will look great in the sunrise and sunset, I tell you,” he says. “It’ll look as good as Stonehenge.”

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