The Egyptian Pharaohs would’ve approved. Sisyphus would be relieved.
After four decades of planning and a 105-mile odyssey, the rock officially has come to rest at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where it is expected to hang out for roughly the next 3,500 years.
On Sunday, hundreds of camera-toting, iPhone-wielding Angelenos and a clutch of dignitaries descended on Michael Heizer’s monumental new outdoor sculpture, a 340-ton granite boulder suspended over a 456-foot-long concrete channel, formally known as “Levitated Mass.”
The rock’s public unveiling produced a scene that combined civic fanfare and primordial drama with the hoopla of a Hollywood red-carpet opening. The first waves of people swarmed beneath the sculpture, ooh-ing and ah-ing and creating a momentary SigAlert in the artwork’s walkway as they paused to ponder the monolith or seek shade beneath its iconic bulk.
“It is a monument to our own time and our own place and our own aspirations as people,” Michael Govan, LACMA’s chief executive, said during the brief dedication ceremony under a blistering late-morning sun. “And being made of stone, concrete and steel and engineered to withstand time, perhaps it will be here millennia forward to communicate those feelings to future civilizations.”
Sunday’s festivities were the climax of a process that started as an art commission but grew into a pop-culture phenomenon of sorts. Heizer first had the idea for “Levitated Mass” some four decades ago. But his vision went unfulfilled until a heavyweight group of LACMA donors, led by former board chair Nancy Daly, ponied up large private gifts toward the artwork’s $10-million price tag.
The rock drew massive attention in March when it made an 11-night journey from a quarry in Riverside through a series of Los Angeles County cities to the LACMA grounds on Wilshire Boulevard.
The boulder traveled on a specially made transporter at just a few miles per hour as it negotiated surface streets, bridges, at least one tight overpass and sharp turns, a trip that required months of logistical planning and negotiating with local municipalities.
Crowds turned out to watch it move through the Greater L.A. area, and in one place where it stopped for the night, Bixby Knolls in Long Beach, thousands of people flocked to an impromptu street party around the boulder.
Besides seeing the artwork itself, Sunday’s opening afforded a rare public sighting of Heizer, who was present in a polo shirt, sunglasses and a large, wide-brimmed hat.
Although he didn’t speak from the podium, Heizer obligingly signed autographs and answered questions from museum visi- tors and the mobs of news media.
Still, the famously reclusive artist kept his comments minimalist and laconic. “When you saw this rock, how did you know it was the one?” one female reporter asked.
“Because it was big,” Heizer replied.
Along with breathless tweets and enthusiastic Facebook posts, the rock also has generated online criticism from fiscal libertarians and others who regard it as a P.T. Barnum-esque folly. No such sentiments could be heard from those who turned out Sunday.
“This is a world event. This is sit-up-and-take-notice. Because L.A. will move the earth, and not only from the earthquakes,” said Marlene Picard, a Namibia native who said the sculpture reminds her of her parched, flinty homeland.
Nicole Mirante-Matthews and her husband, Jason, traveled from Silver Lake to walk their pit bull puppy, Olive, through the exhibit. The pair, both rock climbers, saw the tented rock before it left the Riverside quarry.
“We’d like to put this in our backyard, but it’s bigger than our house,” Nicole said, laughing. “It’s amazing to be standing under a huge rock in the middle of a big city.”
Attendant politicians saw the rock as a symbol for, well, whatever they pleased. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said the pristine concrete walkway that slices beneath the boulder “reminds me of what our streets should look like. And I’d like to get ‘em there, so we’ve got to extend Measure R.” The 2008 measure raises money for traffic reduction and other transit projects.
Leaving no public policy stone unturned, Villaraigosa also gave a plug for the planned subway line extension to LACMA and for environmental conservation. The mayor said the rock, lifted from a desert, reminds us that “we actually do live in a semi-arid place” and “that we have to conserve our water, we have to protect our climate.”
William Escalera, who serves on LACMA’s modern art acquisitions council, predicted that Angelenos would find many uses for the rock. “People will want to get married in front of it,” he said. “I hope nobody wants to climb on it.”
There’ll be plenty of time to find out. It’s going to be around for a while.