Magazine | October 31, 2011, Issue

Null, Spacy

Moving stones from one place to another is an ancient human pastime. For thousands of years, it’s all they had to do. You can build an astrological observatory with religious uses, such as Stonehenge; you can command the people to construct immense pyramids to celebrate and entomb the gods who walk among men — and if you supply beer, as the Egyptians did, even better. Stones were moved to create buildings or fortifications, bring water from the mountains to the splashing fountains of ancient Rome. Visit Florence, and be awed: A Renaissance man had only the wheel, a chisel, a horse, some rope, and he wrenched the stone from the fist of the mountain, dragged it to town, and sold it to the fellow who cut it just so for the walls of the new church, or the man who chipped and tapped until a human figure emerged from the rock.

But those were the days before enlightenment. Now we realize that the rock in its natural state has integrity and presence, and hacking it up for anthropomorphic forms is really a kind of abuse. As if we’re better than rock, or something. But that hasn’t stopped advancements in modern rock moving: The New York Times recently reported on the difficulty of transporting a 340-ton rock from the quarry to the L.A. County Museum of Art, 60 miles away. Usually a stone of this dimension is classified as “leverite,” as in “leave ’er right there” — but not by the visionary. Not by someone who connects with the ancient traditions of moving rocks from one place to another. Not by the artist. He sees rock, unmolested by human hands, sitting atop a long trench. It’s called “Levitated Mass,” to state the obvious. From the museum’s website:

As with other works by the artist, such as Double Negative (1969), the monumental negative form is key to the experience of the artwork. [Michael] Heizer conceived of the artwork in 1968, but discovered an appropriate boulder, which is one component of the greater artwork, only decades later, in Riverside, California. At 340 tons, the boulder is one of the largest monoliths moved since ancient times. Taken whole, Levitated Mass speaks to the expanse of art history, from ancient traditions of creating artworks from monolithic stone, to modern forms of abstract geometries and cutting-edge feats of engineering.

Just so we’re clear: It’s a rock suspended over a trench — sorry, a negative space; remember to use that phrase on the police report next time you drive into a ditch — and that’s what we’re supposed to experience. You can walk under it and say, “My, what a large rock; I’m certainly glad it’s not going to fall down, because unlike the coyote in the Warner Brothers cartoons, I would not walk away shaped like an accordion. Shall we have lunch now?” The project cost $10 million.

#page#A spokesman for the museum defended the project, of course. There’s not much of a future for telling the press, “I know, I can’t believe it myself. The entire course of Western art, utterly spent. I saw it coming, I have to admit — I did my doctorate on a rusty I-Beam stuck in the desert — the Mote in God’s Thigh, I think they called it. Years later we found out it just fell off a truck. Ever since then it’s all been a joke for me. I sit in the office and try to appreciate a Norman Rockwell ironically, as a form of commercial Christianist-paradigm-reinforcing propaganda, but that doesn’t even work anymore.”

Sorry. As I was saying, a spokesman defended the project, noting, “We are putting more people to work here in L.A. than Obama.” Way to set the bar high, champ. (Note: If Obama’s a benchmark of poor job creation among L.A. museum directors, he’s really toast.) But the man’s right. If the American economy ever picks up again we will be perfectly positioned to lead the competitive global rock-relocating industry — or would be, if the moving company weren’t Korean. But then we’ll find that China is producing cheaper boulders, blasting them out of mountains instead of finding le rocher juste — the art equivalent of human-organ trafficking — so perhaps we should compete with the Europeans, who are much less inclined to crude huge projects than we rude Americans, and prefer to push around small rocks with the handles of espresso spoons by means of understated gestures.

Who funds the artist in his other projects, such as an immense unoccupied city built on private land in the desert? The Lannan Foundation, one of those organizations that give money to artists to do socially important things, like put on a Howard Zinn play about Marx. (Really.) Who founded it? J. Patrick Lannan, an arts patron — but more to the point, a member of the board of directors of ITT for 36 years. Wikipedia describes him as a businessman and financier. It is silent on his enthusiasm for Marx.

Speaking of Karl: Would the Occupy Wall Street crowd applaud Levitated Mass or be appalled? That’s a lot of money that could feed the poor or erect a guillotine for bankers or fund simultaneous nationwide drum circles to raise consciousness about the need for awareness. (Last week’s drum circle was intended to raise awareness about consciousness.) On the other hand, it’s art, and modern art is the one theology whose tenets cannot be questioned. The Occupiers should take the long view: In 50 years all that nasty evil money will be in the hands of the heirs, and they’ll fund a documentary on your noble cause. Unless everything falls apart, that is. Then we’ll all be in the negative space.

James Lileks — James Lileks writes the Athwart column for National Review magazine and is a frequent contributor to the National Review website. He is a prominent voice on Ricochet podcasts.

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