The Big Rock -- and the Very Small Room

You could hardly have lived in Southern California these past three months and not know something about this massive, 340-ton granite boulder and its journey from the quarry in Riverside County where the artist laid claim to it.
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Sunday morning, I went down to the Los Angeles County Museum to join in the celebration of the dedication of Levitated Mass -- the Michael Heizer outdoor sculptural installation on the museum grounds.

You could hardly have lived in Southern California these past three months or so and not know something about this massive, 340-ton granite boulder and its journey from the quarry in Riverside County where the artist laid claim to it forty years ago for just this purpose. Its transportation to its site at the museum required the fabrication of a special vehicle and an eleven-day trek that drew thousands of gaping spectators -- not to mention daily media coverage -- along the way. It is now supported in place -- for the next thirty-five hundred years, the LACMA's director, Michael Govan assures us -- by a 465-foot long concrete slot that allows the visitor to walk directly underneath what is by now affectionately known as "the big rock."

There were speeches -- the Mayor, the County Supervisor, the Chairman of the Museum's Board of Trustees, the Director. The artist kept wisely mum, allowing his work to speak for him. It did so, given its scale, quite loudly. The ribbon was cut by a delightful little girl, and the dignitaries led the way down the slope and under the rock for the first official viewing, followed by a parade of donors (the piece cost, as I understand it, some $10 million -- though my private guess is that this would be an understatement,) a bevy of media and hundreds of us, the hoi-polloi...

We gazed upward and admired what few people ever see: the underside of a boulder that has the heft of an asteroid.

Okay, interesting things to think about here -- the ancient history of the megalith, the Brobginangian object that reminds us ephemeral beings of our fragility and impermanence; we think of giant Olmec heads, of Stonehenge other rock circles, of Egyptian obelisks, of gigantic statues of the Buddha... objects whose very weight and imposing presence imbue our species with a sense of spiritual awe. We think of mass and and levitation, certainly, of weight and volume, of contour and shape. We think of the symbiotic relationship between art and nature. The surrounding flat, landscaped area of sand-colored decomposed granite reminds us that the rock originates in the California desert, that we live in this relatively fertile spot by the ocean, separated only by mountains from that arid expanse; and, as Mayor Villaraigosa aptly reminded us in his speech, in a world of changing climate that requires our responsible stewardship. Here in Los Angeles, our cars and freeways contribute excessively to the pollution of our atmosphere.

Beyond all this, I found myself troubled by a couple of perhaps picky details. One, the rock really doesn't "levitate." It sits, firmly bolted to its support structure, the very solid concrete channel that is engineered to carry its weight. I had expected something more magical, more threatening somehow, more oppressive. I was looking for what I might describe as a sense of imminence, or omen, and I didn't really find it. And then it seems to me that the same support structure, in its considerable length and width, tends to minimize the scale of the rock as you approach it. Once you get there, okay, it's pretty darn big, but it's somewhat diminished in the perspective from which you're invited to approach it. Still, definitely worth a visit, worth spending some time with. (A walking meditation, perhaps: "One Hour/One Rock.)

From the macro to the micro: I also visited our friend Valerie Wilcox's exhibition at Gallery 825 on La Cienega last week. She takes the tiny room she is given for a solo show and orchestrates it into a whole environment whose implications are much larger than the actual space she occupies. I wrote in an earlier entry in The Buddha Diaries about the idiosyncratic sculptural objects in which she explored the extension of line into a third dimension. Now, it seems to me, she pushes that interest in line still further, into the spatial environment itself. Her quirky black "marks in motion," installed in random patterns against the white wall...

... invite the eye to create its own lines, pointing along inexhaustible, multi-directional paths that lead around and back on themselves in a way that is at once amusing and as puzzling as a maze. She has turned another wall black...

... (seen here installed with a small, boxy white square of canvas inscribed with dotted lines) using the traditional means of mark- (or line-) making: graphite. On close examination, it reveals the textured process of its making: more lines -- thick, slow lines that suggest a dark, watery surface, always in motion, setting up interesting black/white visual reverberations with the wall across from it. All of which goes to show, perhaps, that you don't actually have to act big to be big. Good things, we might infer, can come in small environments.

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