First Person: Rolling with LACMA’s ‘Levitated Mass’ rock
“Excuse me, miss? Why is this rock so special?” questioned the puzzled man, bundled in a heavy sweat shirt, a steaming cup of coffee in one hand.
It was close to 3 a.m. on Saturday and the 340-ton boulder, after traveling for 11 nights through city streets, was on its victory lap, inching up Wilshire Boulevard to its destination at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Hundreds of people were running on the sidewalk alongside the shining, custom-built carrier.
I had been on the road with the monolith — and the Emmert International crew hauling it — on and off since it departed from a quarry in Riverside County in late February. I had chronicled the project’s fits and starts in articles, blog posts and, as the transporters’ wheels rounded every harrowing turn on its journey, blow by blow on my Twitter account.
Yet the question stumped me.
It was not because of the multiple all-nighters I had pulled to ride with the rock or because my feet were cramping from walking behind the caravan for so many miles, or the cold I was nursing. Maybe it was the annoyance that slowly had canceled out the awe that originally had inspired me about this mission. Part engineering marvel, part civic spectacle, the “Levitated Mass,” as it will be called upon its unveiling this spring as a sculpture on the LACMA campus, had taken over my life.
An assignment that I had expected to take a couple of weeks had turned into more than six months, as the logistics of hauling this two-story-high chunk of granite through four counties and 22 cities became mired in a thicket of permitting nightmares. Would streets crack from the weight, damaging sewer lines below? Would bridges crumble? How many streetlights and utility poles would need to be taken down?
The feat, funded privately to the tune of $10 million, was far more complicated than anyone at the museum or Emmert had fathomed. For me, it was the interminable “next week’s story,” forcing me to cancel interviews, dinner dates and out-of-town visitors at the last minute so I could travel with the rock; then departure dates inevitably turned into false alarms, usually because of one permitting snag or another. That start-and-stop routine reached a hip-hop frenzy by mid-February.
My mother seemed oddly in sync with the rock, her visits repeatedly colliding with key progress points. During a September visit, she donned an orange hard hat to accompany me and dozens of other journalists to Stone Valley Quarry to meet the rock and watch the transporter being built around it. When my mom showed up in Los Angeles on Feb. 27, my hunch was that LACMA’s proposed departure date the following day was solid. It was!
Though international media swarmed the quarry the night we embarked, most everyone had cleared out by 10 p.m., giving me exclusive media face time with the rock, along with a small documentary crew hired by the museum to record the journey. I rode for a bit with Emmert Project Manager Mark Albrecht at the head of the caravan miles in front of the rock, but soon jumped out to walk closer to the transporter, with the various truckers and Emmert superintendents — a haphazard parade of orange and yellow hard hats.
My arts and entertainment assignments have taken me to galleries, to red carpets and to chefs tables in Beverly Hills but have rarely been as physically taxing. The night the rock hit the road, I lay in the dirt near the quarry, blogging on my iPhone in the pitch dark, my fingertips icy cold. I had not prepared for 41-degree weather in the wide open Jurupa Valley. I darted into a nearby gas station to buy a knit cap, gloves and zebra print scarf. Emmert crew members lent me spare jackets. With my three puffy coats and a requisite neon CHP vest, I looked like a glowing, traffic-savvy marshmallow.
Bathroom accommodations were scarce on the deserted roads of Riverside County and parts of Diamond Bar. The only option was a single, rolling Andy Gump porta-potty — which I avoided at all costs — hitched to the back of a truck and shared by 100 truckers that were on hand to clear the rock’s path.
My second night out, I tweeted so much that Twitter cut me off, thinking perhaps that I was a spammer. My followers began a relentless assault, complaining I had fallen down on the job. “Don’t send this girl to Iraq,” one tweeted.
Gratefully, a colleague who covers the party scene was awake at 1 a.m. to tell my followers about the Twitter malfunction. Emmert’s Justin Salter opened his first Twitter account on his iPad and tweeted in my defense. I texted a friend, who opened a new account for me and tweeted my photos and comments through the night. My followers finally forgave me.
Driving directly from the quarry to LACMA would take a tad over one hour. But the rock’s weight demanded a more circuitous 105-mile route, traveling on closed roads in the middle of the night at an average of 4 or 5 mph. The first night, we advanced just one mile between our 10 p.m. start until we docked at the side of the road around 4 a.m. Another night, we headed as far south as Long Beach to find an appropriate place to cross the L.A. River. The block party there attracted well over 20,000 gawkers.
“Levitated Mass” was conceived by LACMA Director Michael Govan to further transform the museum’s campus into a town square for social and cultural dialogue. But Govan inadvertently created a rolling town square as thousands of pedestrians filled the street to behold the rock on its journey.
A gap-toothed drunkard in South L.A. stuck his head through our open car window and drooled on my arm, his breath a fiery blend of beer and liquor. “So how ‘bout that rock?” he blubbered with a grin.
In Long Beach, a paunchy, middle-aged woman waddled into the middle of the street wearing a pink bathrobe, thanking me for my Twitter updates, recognizing me from my photo on the site.
A curly-haired, wily-eyed prop specialist near USC gave Emmert’s Mark Voss and me a lift back to the caravan after we’d fallen behind on foot. “Bye, guys, rock on!” she said and waved, screeching a left, after dropping us off.
“It’s a citizen re-awareness campaign for LACMA,” concluded one onlooker, J.T. Walker.
“Levitated Mass” is as much about the journey, and connections it sparked along the way, as its final installation.
I suppose what I should have said to the befuddled man on Wilshire is:
“The rock is such a big deal because you are out here, in the middle of the night in what looks like your sleeping clothes, having a conversation with me about it.”
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