Levitated Mass is a fascinating documentary that chronicles the journey of a 340 ton boulder from a quarry in Riverside, California to its home at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. That is what happens in the film, but it is about so much more: the relationship of an artist to his or her creation, the interaction of a piece of art with the audience, and the very nature of art itself.
Michael Heizer is an artist who specializes in landscape art that is too huge to be confined in the walls of a museum. His work usually involves great tracts of earth, negative space and large geometric shapes. "Levitated Mass" is a project that Heizer began in the late 60's that involved suspending a huge rock on steel girders above a walkway; the project was abandoned when the crane meant to move the boulder was destroyed in the attempt. Nearly forty years later, Heizer decides to try again when he finds a suitable stone at a quarry in Riverside. After securing private funding in excess of ten million dollars, plans are made to move the boulder to an installation at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art using a massive tractor trailer on a roundabout route of surface streets. Planning is a nightmare, as the route goes through more than a dozen cities with their own zoning laws. After much delay and years since he found discovered the boulder, the hundreds strong crew of engineers and drivers begins the long slog to Los Angeles. Along the journey the boulder becomes a phenomenon, attracting local curiosity seekers and art lovers alike. 150 miles and ten nights later, the boulder arrives at its new home where Heizer, absent until that moment, begins to work on the installation that he began decades earlier.
Like many of the bystanders witnessing the transport of the boulder I admit to a certain amount of incredulity early on about the value of this as "art," but I came around by the end. The film wisely shows a lot of Heizer's other works, and the man, as much an engineer as an artist, really is a genius at creating evocative, massive installations. They certainly cause a very primal, visceral reaction. What is really fascinating about the film is that as the boulder makes its journey the interaction between it and the crowds that gather to watch becomes an art installation itself. Heizer controls every aspect of what happens once the boulder arrives at LACMA, but by then it has taken on a life of its own. It seems as if it's an unintended consequence of moving the rock from point A to point B, but maybe not. Either way it makes for an absolutely riveting movie, and one that genuinely surprised me.