Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Michael Heizer's Levitated Mass

In early August, a 340-ton boulder will be driven from a quarry in Riverside to LACMA to become art: Michael Heizer's Levitated Mass.

(See also the 200-ton BofA Plaza segmented chunk of Swedish marble.)

In 1969, I looked on as Heizer did the ur-version. Here is my previously unpublished account: 

Alakali flats or dry lakes are smooth, isolated, canvas-colored surfaces that dot the deserts of California and Nevada. Snow covers some dry lakes in winter and turns them to chocolate pudding in spring, but most of them dried up forever 12,000 years ago and are now used, if at all, for joy rides, TV commercials, speed trials, and landing the X-15.

Since 1967, Michael Heizer (born 1945) has explored the possibilities of making art on these surfaces. He has sunk minimalist boxes and troughs, dug hug curlicues, zia zags, and depressions ("negative objects"), and even painted—with water-based dye—and done drawings—with a motorcycle.

At the simplest level, his art rejects the indoor, precious object, the portable commodity so conveniently handled by dealers, collectors, and museums. His desert pieces are quite obviously inaccessible. And they derive much of their beauty from this isolation. 

"In the desert," Heizer says, "I can find that kind of unraped, peaceful, religious space artists have always tried to put in their work."

Heizer's move is out of the tightly circumscribed art world with its tiny, stuffy galleries into a near-empty situation so essentially artless it might even be called Nature. The grandeur of the setting—the clear hot air in a sky the color of Nevada's license plates, the silence, the faintly cracked, powered-milk mud walled in by scrubby brush and barren hills is undeniable. 

As Robert Scull, who has commissioned two Heizer projects, said after one visit, "Nobody back there realizes how much fun—and how beautiful—this kind of art can be."

Still, Heizer is far from being a scenic tour guide or neo-romantic nature freak. His blasted vision of pastoral may seem appropriate in an age of lunar landscapes, but that is not his prime concern.

While many avant-garde sculptors are currently concerned with "process"—showing how the work is made—Heizer is not. His material is identical with its location, not transformed or performed. It falls within the great sculptural tradition of carving and modeling, the earth being treated as a monolith to be manipulated by shovels, bulldozers, and earthmovers.

Object-sculpture in general is also defeated because a Heizer piece is its location. No disengagement from the site is possible. The work is where it is, and the implicated space—or place—has no specific limits, the equivalent of the edges of the canvas. A piece on a dry lake is no more determined by the boundaries of that lake than it is by the ring of mountains that surround that lake.

Making his crude marks as far from civilization as he can—"my holes should be indeterminate in time and inaccessible in place"—Heizer returns sculpture to its primitive, archaeological roots, the way Andy Warhol, in his early films, returned cinema to the austere purity of Lumiere.

Much of Heizer's work an be traced through what might be called family background. There are mining engineers and geologists on both sides of the family.  His father is a noted UC-Berkeley anthropologist/archaeologist, an expert on Indian rock drawings who recently discovered an important pyramid in Mexico. 

See also Robert F. Heizer's "Ancient Heavy Transport, Method and Achievement," Science, August 19, 1966, which describes the means used by engineers in antiquity to move huge rocks—for obelisks, Stonehenge, and other monolithic monoments.

Robert Heizer's article might serve as the text for his son's most recent work—moving a 130-ton, 30-foot chunk of granite blasted from the Sierra Nevada above Lake Tahoe by construction crews.

The Heizer family has had a cabin at Tahoe for 15 years, and Heizer frequently uses it as base camp for his ventures into the desert. When he discovered this giant rock, he decided to move it and three lesser, 30-ton companions some 70 miles: past the former Mint in Carson City, past the ghost town of Dayton, past the century-old Sutro Tunnel (drilled to drain the silver mines of Virginia City), past a corral used for the movie, The Misfits, out a gravel road cut by the Break-a-Heart ranch and onto a dry lake nestled in a box canyon beneath Churchill Butte and the Pine Nut Mountains.

The giant rock would be dropped over a slot 15-feet deep, 30-feet long. And, because only the ends would rest on the banks, it would be called "levitated mass." The lesser rocks would be dropped into three lesser holes, to become "replaced mass."

The operation would require a blasting drill—to lop the giant down to manageable size—two cranes, three heavy equipment haulers, and a skip-loader. A real estate agent would be consulted because Heizer, who used to raid whatever dry lakes took his fancy, now feels he must own the land of which his art is deployed. "I'm reversing myself," he declares, explaining he could no longer be pleased that his works were temporary and unsaleable.

(The wood liners of one hole have been pirated for firewood; many of the unlined holes have been eroded to the point of disappearing.)

To help ensure saleability and permanence, Heizer would try to buy the lake. And he would make his holes into hardened silos, using high-quality concrete and reinforcing rods. Thus, he hoped they would even be capable of withstanding a nuclear attack.

"Artists have always been frightened by things like the Grand Canyon," fellow earthworker Dennis Oppenheim once declared. "These forms may be impossible to duplicate or rival, but they are important. And we have to take them on in their own ballpark."

How large, then, must a trench in a dry lake or a rock on a trench in a dry lake have to be to have massive scale? At one point, Heizer proposed digging a 30-foot "shaft," a mini-mine. But a 130-ton rock—as large as any the ancients were able to handle—would surely be big enough.

The central issue, though, is time. Ephemerality has become the standard in recent art: carpets of graphite laid down to be swept away; performances that are neither recorded nor repeated... Heizer, however, is after truly monumental art, something that will survive—monolithic, mysterious, and as durable as the Easter Island heads.

Heizer is very literal in his determination to outlast the holocaust he sees as imminent. "The only way to destroy this piece," he says, "is to bury it. And you can trust the empirical mind to find it again."

The audacity of Heizer's obsession can be measured in terms of its cost—not simply for transportation, real estate, or equipment rental—but in almost criminal danger and destruction. The day before the big move, he wiped out the underbelly of his rental car while reconnoitering the terrain near the rock. Coming to the job, one crane sideswiped a car and a camper-trailer. Later, the brakes of one hauler slipped, and it smashed into a truck. Later still, another hauler's fan belt broke, tearing its radiator apart.

Because of the delays—ultimately, the cranes were too weak to lift the giant—night fell before the lesser rocks arrived on the site. So the unloading was performed by half-moon and headlights. It was a scene from Wages of Fear, Yves Montand bouncing along with a truckload of nitroglycerin.

It seems strange, but necessary, to report that no one was physically injured.

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