A rock. A very large rock. That is ostensibly what Doug Pray‘s Levitated Mass is about. While that may not seem like a subject of interest, it’s the context in which the rock is taken that makes this film, and the rock, so interesting. A little background to clarify – since the 1960s, artist/sculptor Michael Heizer has been working in large-scale earth art (like Andy Goldsworthy who may be more a household name than Heizer) that is too big to be contained within the traditional confines of an art gallery or museum. Since 1969 he had planned a piece, the titular Levitated Mass – a gigantic rock suspended on concrete rails that allows viewers to walk in a trench under the massive stone, the work, according the the LACMA website where the project now sits, “speaks to the expanse of art history, from ancient traditions of creating artworks from megalithic stone, to modern forms of abstract geometries and cutting-edge feats of engineering.” After a failed attempt, Heizer put the project on hold until a suitable stone could once again be found.
So how does all of this shake out into a feature length documentary, you ask? Well, here goes. After hearing about the stone from a quarryman who had worked with Heizer before, Michael had, after 40+ years, finally found the stone he would need to complete the long gestating Levitated Mass piece. Two issues now stood in the way – funding and transportation of the stone. Michael Govan, director of LACMA, stepped up and reached out to donors who put up the money to buy the stone, make the 456′ long trench that would hold and obtain the transportation to bring the stone to its new home. However, moving a 340 ton stone over 105 miles required tons of bureaucratic dealings as well as a sizable amount of innovation on how to get it there. Due to its size, the moving company had to raise electrical wires, move light poles, follow an exceedingly circuitous route and move at slow speeds mostly at night to get the rock where its final resting place would be. An undertaking of titanic proportions. And that’s where perhaps the most surprising aspect of the film comes in.
The people along the transportation route treated witnessing the movement of the rock like a once in a lifetime event of massive importance. And in a way it was. Along this route, people of all backgrounds came out to witness art in action. This rock motivated people to think about what art really is, what it isn’t, have a dialogue about both questions and really energize people in way that maybe they had never been before in regards to art. And this is art in one of its most abstract forms. We’re not talking Monet or Van Gogh paintings that are so ubiquitously used in so many areas of our culture. This is a massive stone situated on rails as if it is hanging in mid air. It’s as much of an engineering feat as it is a work of art. That so many people who would otherwise scoff at something like this would be intrigued is quite extraordinary.
And while the story of the journey of the rock is fascinating, the way it is told by director Doug Pray is equally astonishing. For the first 50+ minutes, we don’t even see Michael Heizer at all except in archival footage or pictures. The rock, the process, the journey are the stars of the film. And even when Heizer appears, he is somewhat aloof and inaccessible, making sure it’s the art, not the artist, that should be featured. Pray‘s ability to capture the sense of anticipation of the participants in the move, the representatives from LACMA who are working tirelessly to make sure the project comes off, the political figures whose permission is sought for approval for the move all play as much of a role in the making of this film and the sculpture as well. This is something that is rarely, if ever, mentioned or documented during this process and it is in this way that Pray and the folks at LACMA who funded the project take something that has long been inaccessible to many due to perceived pretensions or otherwise apathy and make it accessible to so many. Hell, I was jazzed and ready to go see the piece right after watching the film!
As the Reel News Daily resident documentary guy, I am constantly amazed by the films I get to see in the doc realm. Levitated Mass surprised me quite a bit. I didn’t know what to expect from a film like this and I was completely blown away. Take that for what you will.
This film is being released by the good people at First Run Features and opens this Friday, November 14 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center. Director Doug Pray will be present for a Q&A following the 7pm screening.