Levitated Mass: The Story of Michael Heizer’s Monolithic Structure is, well, exactly that. The object in question is a massive, 340-ton boulder that is now displayed prominently in front of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, suspended over a sunken walkway. Its principle attribute is its hugeness, further exaggerated by the act of looking at it from below. As Michael Heizer says, “Size is one third of sculpture.” This is meant to impress, to mimic the gigantic monuments of the pre-modern world. Looking at it, the first question that comes to mind is this: “How on earth did that get here?”
Doug Pray’s new film sets out to answer that, and on the way confronts the deeper problem of its ownership. “Levitated Mass” may have come from the mind of Heizer, but it doesn’t particularly feel his. Pray gives a bit of background on the sculptor’s history and his importance in the invention of “negative space” in art. Previous works are essentially ditches in the ground, downward pieces that create artistic space by removing earth. They have been called “monumental absences,” ironically also a good descriptor for the lack of visible involvement by Heizer himself in the creation of his newest project.
He doesn’t enter the documentary until quite late. It is clear that for Pray this is primarily a story of an artwork rather than its artist. Wisely beginning at the quarry, Levitated Mass follows this boulder’s journey to LACMA without obscuring any of the lives it affected on the way. The bulk of the film is focused on the moving itself, an enormous undertaking. The route for the rock, which is too tall for most bridges and overpasses, ends up including twenty-two different municipalities. The permitting alone is quite the process.
Throughout, Pray makes sure to lend dignity to every perspective. This might not seem particularly difficult in an art documentary, but there’s a lot of tension. As LACMA CEO Michael Govan raises more and more money, millions of dollars, his efforts to rush the permits through these various cities and towns fall into jeopardy. Yet while the museum folks find this frustrating, rejecting the relevance of bureaucrats who Govan himself snidely refers to as “part-time” city officials, Pray conserves their dignity. After all, the concern that a 340-ton boulder will suddenly get stuck at a major intersection in a small town is a legitimate one.
Meanwhile, as naturally emerges once the rock starts moving, this sculpture doesn’t really belong to Govan or Heizer anyway. The most beautifully human, interesting section of Pray’s film is the actual transport itself. The engineers who designed the one-of-a-kind transport for the rock finally get to see it move, along with the staff they’ve hired to walk with it the whole way. As it slowly chugs from town to town, crowds rush out to meet it. Pray captures the tittering (and often Twittering) excitement of these communities with ease. He seems most at home when constructing these sequences, man-on-the-street montages of surprise, awe and joy.
Levitated Mass is, at its core, a film about the relationship between a work of art and its public. As a result, it shines when the public is out in force and suffers when it retreats into the somewhat insular world of Heizer and Govan. Pray also misses some larger, thematic opportunities. “Levitated Mass” is, after all, a multi-million dollar work paid for primarily by private donors. It’s presented as a monument to the vision of a single man, who repeatedly stresses the individualistic nature of his work.
It is, in many ways, the polar opposite of those works celebrated during the last major economic crisis we had in this country, the odes to collective labor that came along with the New Deal. “Levitated Mass” is a sculpture that arose from the work and cooperation of great many people, excited by the city at large before it was even finished. Will it continue to be thought of in those terms, now that it hovers over the lawn of the museum? Perhaps only time will tell, but by not asking these sorts of questions Pray’s film misses the chance at real weight.
This review was originally published during the DOC NYC fest on November 16, 2013. Levitated Mass is now playing in theaters.