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LACMA set to roll away the stone

A 340-ton granite boulder for Michael Heizer's 'Levitated Mass' will take at least a week to get from a Riverside quarry.

September 22, 2011|By Deborah Vankin, Los Angeles Times
  • LACMA director Michael Govan and the Levitated Mass stone.
LACMA director Michael Govan and the Levitated Mass stone. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles…)

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art will introduce its newest VIP today in a Riverside quarry: the 340-ton, 211/2-foot-high granite boulder that will form the centerpiece of Michael Heizer's massive outdoor sculpture, "Levitated Mass."

When the piece is complete, the rock will sit on steel rails at ground level, north of the Wilshire Boulevard museum's Resnick Pavilion. A 456-foot-long, ramp-like slot in the ground, descending to 15 feet deep, will run beneath it. The rock will appear to levitate above people walking through the underground channel.

Because of its size and weight, bringing what LACMA calls "the monolith" to the museum is an intricate, complex, potentially dangerous and very expensive process that has required more than a year of logistical preparations. It's one of the heaviest objects to be moved since ancient times, says museum director Michael Govan.

"It's much contested, the movement of monoliths in ancient times. The estimated weights of certain objects are speculation. But it is pretty clear that this is one of the largest monoliths that's ever been moved," Govan says.

LACMA is working with Emmert International, a company that specializes in moving "extreme objects" like nuclear generators and missiles, says project manager John Bowsher. Emmert is building a custom "transporter" around the boulder that will likely be 200 feet long and almost three freeway lanes wide. A road will first have to be carved out of the quarry; then the transporter will travel to LACMA at night, on closed roads and at less than 10 mph, led by a police escort. The approximately 85-mile journey, normally a one and half hour drive, will take a circuitous route lasting a week to 10 days.

"I don't see dangers, just logistical challenges," Bowsher says. "Turning is an enormous effort, for example. To turn something 200 feet long — you don't take those turns at 30 miles an hour like we do."

Bridges are a particular challenge because of their weight limits, says Bowsher.

Some utility lines, street lights and stop lights will have to be taken down by the local area's utility companies as the boulder passes through crowded urban areas — then put right back up. No power outages are expected, but stoplights, on roads that will be closed to other traffic, will go out for short periods as the rock passes through.

By far the biggest difficulty, says Bowsher, has been getting the permits required for the trip. In addition to the public utility questions, permission must be obtained to use freeways and surface roads along the rock's route. "It involves the state of California, the counties Riverside, San Bernardino and L.A., and all the municipalities the rock will go through," Bowsher said.

Awaiting permits has created a domino effect of scheduling delays, and LACMA has been struggling with logistics. The route the rock will take can't be confirmed until permits are cleared; and construction of the transporter can't begin until the rock's route is finalized (road widths and the number of bridges factor into the vehicle's design). The boulder was initially set to arrive at the museum on Aug. 14; its departure from Riverside is now tentatively set for Oct. 3, give or take a few days.

The cost of "Levitated Mass" — the boulder, work on the LACMA site and transportation — is in the "single digit millions, more than five and less than 10," Govan says. Most of that money is coming from private donations from museum patrons, including Terry and Jane Semel and Robert Daly and Carole Bayer Sager. Transportation is largely being funded by the Korean company Hanjin Shipping — a major corporate benefactor to the museum. "It's a gift to the public of Los Angeles," Govan says.

Despite all the attention to the giant rock, Govan emphasized that it is only part of the sculpture. As central to its artistic design is the construction of the subterranean slot.

"The largest part of the sculpture is the negative space, the channel in the landscape," he says. "It has its own independent sculptural presence. The marriage of these two forms comprises the sculpture."

Construction on the sculpture's site, currently taking up four acres of the museum's campus, began in May. "Levitated Mass" will be open to the public, if all goes well, in mid- to late November.

What happens to the transporter? "It all gets taken apart and shipped away!" Bowsher says.

deborah.vankin@latimes.com

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