(2013) Documentary (Electric City) Michael Heizer, Michael Govan, Jarl Mohn, Terry Semel, Zev Yaroslavsky, Bruce Pollack, Stephen Vander Hart, Mary Heizer, Terry Emmert, Tim Cunningham, Chris Gutierrez, Larry Klayman, Greg Otto, Elaine Wynn, Kathleen Anderson, Wes Molino, Chaz Ermini, Raul Duran, Gregg Lowry, Ron Elad, Laura Roughton, Chrissie Isles. Directed by Doug Pray
Art is an entirely subjective thing. What is art to one person may not necessarily be to another. Some people can look at a beautiful sunset at call it art; others say that art only exists as a human creation; art cannot be discovered, only created. There is no right answer, incidentally; art is what you think it is.
Michael Heizer is a sculptor who has been pushing the boundaries of art since the ’60s. He created the concept of “negative sculpture” – solid objects with the “art” carved out of them. Heizer also tends to prefer working with massive sizes and shapes. He has mostly been on his Nevada ranch the past couple of decades, working on a unique and perhaps unfinishable sculpture.
That doesn’t mean he hasn’t made time for other things however. One concept he has been working on for more than forty years has been the work of art entitled “Levitated Mass” in which a massive boulder is suspended above a trench so people can walk beneath the boulder and alongside it. He would eventually have a supporter in Michael Govan, executive director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art or as it is locally known, LACMA.
When Heizer found the perfect rock in a Riverside quarry, he was ready to create his artwork but first he had to get the rock from Riverside to Los Angeles. That’s a 60 mile journey if you make it directly, but a boulder this size – 340 tons, 21 and a half feet tall – isn’t just something you can pick up and put in the back of a pickup truck. A specialized transport had to be constructed just to move it and the route had to go in such a way that the vehicle was able to make it under bridges (and over bridges that were structurally able to support the weight) as well as on roads which didn’t have tight turns that the truck couldn’t make. Eventually a route was plotted that turned the 60 mile trip into 106 miles.
The process to move the boulder was a harrowing one, involving 22 city governments, three county governments and the State of California with the museum having to secure permits from each one of these bureaucracies. Just one refusal would have shut the whole thing down, and there were some legitimate reasons to say no – wear and tear on roads, the involvement of city services, the disruption to traffic (although the rock only traveled late at night).
The museum raised the ten million dollars needed from private donors and eventually, on the night of February 28, 2012 the boulder went underway from the quarry. The museum had to arrange to notify the residents of what was happening, tow cars parked along the route, temporarily move traffic signals and signs, and insure that the rock wasn’t damaged en route. In order to facilitate it, the boulder was wrapped in sheets of Egyptian cotton and essentially hidden from sight.
A curious thing happened on the way to the museum. People turned up to watch the spectacle night after night, sometimes in pajamas in the wee hours of the mornings. Tens of thousands of residents turned up, over a thousand of them gathering at LACMA on March 10 alone to see the boulder arrive at its new home. Spontaneous block parties broke out; people proposed marriage and everywhere the rock went it ignited a debate as to whether the expense was worth it and if this rock was actually art or ego. One thing is for certain; Angelinos love a good spectacle.
Pray wisely doesn’t take sides and allows the viewer to decide these questions for themselves. It’s understandable why some people, particularly in some of the poorest neighborhoods of L.A. would be grousing about spending ten million dollars to move a rock when there were so many urgent needs desperate for funding in those neighborhoods. However, it is also understandable that art has an important place not only in a city’s culture but in its own self-definition. What would New York City be without the Guggenheim, or Chicago without the Cloud Gate sculpture? Sure, they’d still be there but they wouldn’t be the same.
The movie serves as a tribute to human ingenuity as well as human will, the will to make the unlikely happen. One has to admire the tenacity of the team of transportation experts and museum staff as well as Heizer himself. The installation shows skills not only in art but in engineering and architecture as well. It is open to the public at the present and doesn’t require museum admission to see it.
While some of the street interviews tended to raise some of the same points over and over again, it is nonetheless inspiring to watch the transportation, the reaction of the people of Southern California to it and the final installation of the boulder in its new home. Is it art? That’s really your call to make dear reader but as far as I’m concerned, it’s art. Very much so.
REASONS TO GO: Invites debate as to the nature of art. Inspiring and creative.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the talking heads are a bit superfluous.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Heizer’s father was a geologist who did a great deal of research into the movement of heavy objects by ancient civilizations.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/10/14: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tim’s Vermeer
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Brick Mansions