“Every age has its peculiar folly — some scheme, project, or phantasy into which it plunges, spurred on either by the love of gain, the necessity of excitement, or the mere force of imitation.”
— Charles Mackay, Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, London, 1841.
FOR THE TITLE PAGE of the 1852 edition of his pioneering work on fads and the unpredictability of human behavior, Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, Charles Mackay chose an image of the peculiarly formed rocky spires in the Harz Mountains of northern Germany. The Brocken, the highest point in the Harz range, was a place well known to Victorian readers, who would have recognized the sullen power associated with this notorious site. Witches and demons were thought to congregate there, and it is where many German folk tales are set, including “Cinderella,” “Hansel and Gretel,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “Rumpelstiltskin,” “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Rapunzel.” The spring festival Walpurgis Night also takes place on the Brocken, and it’s where Goethe has Mephistopheles tempt Faust to give up his soul. Rocks have power and their presence can move men to extremes. Mackay knew that the image of a notably spooky, craggy place would have an impact on his readers; seeing the image of the mountain in the book’s opening pages would alert them that they were in for some surprising accounts of bizarre events.
The Victorians, with their neo-Gothic fancies, were not alone in their affection for eerie outcroppings and haunted grottoes. The children of Southern California — I among them — were treated to an experience directly linked to Mackay’s image of the chimerical Brocken when, in 1959, a renowned mountain miraculously appeared in Orange County: the Matterhorn. Somehow, we sensed the Matterhorn’s formidable power, and when its diminutive duplicate was unveiled at Disneyland, we were in its thrall. The real Matterhorn is nearly 14,700 feet high, while the Disneyland facsimile, built at a scale of 1/100, is 147 feet. But to us, it seemed as tall as any Alpine peak, and as alluring. In the car, we would spend most of the ride down to the Magic Kingdom in a state of high excitement, on the constant lookout for the Matterhorn; whoever spotted it first was accorded special, nearly seer-like status. When we arrived at Disneyland, we raced first to that magical mountain; no other ride captured our imagination as did this wonderful simulacrum. We were ecstatic careening on a fast-moving bobsled through snow that had never fallen on Anaheim. Though we could have gone to nearby Mount Baldy (at 10,000 feet the highest nearby peak), it was not height we were after; it was thrills and chills. There was something inexplicably enchanting about the Matterhorn, a mountain built for children, and its intention to overwhelm, yet remain safe, was clearly understood by us. Our fantasies of rocks, snow, wind, trees and speed — of wildness, for that was what it really represented — were perfectly encased in that brilliant, benevolent decoy. Were we duped by an imitation, deluded by a fraud à la Mackay? I prefer to think that it triggered our imaginations and aroused our senses in ways that were productive, that this mountain-in-miniature, imitation though it was, affected us in mostly positive ways.
Title page to Charles Mackay’s pioneering work with the picture of the Harz Mountains.
Decoys, however, often have a negative aspect, and so, like Mackay, we turn our attention to those objects that can fool unsuspecting creatures into a delusion or a trap. Southern California, long used to fads, bubbles and exaggerations, was recently in the grip of an event that Mackay would certainly have added to his anthology of popular frenzies. Not only did it harken back to the past when the transportation of granite obelisks created awe, and when colossal rocks exerted powerful forces upon humankind, it also incorporated the modern mania for fame and celebrity, demonstrating the incurable tendency to prefer myth over fact. This event centered around a rock — a 340-ton, 21-foot high, 150 million-year-old boulder that traveled across four Southern California counties in order to be installed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
What inspired the popular interest in this megalith was a project devised by Michael Heizer, an artist known for land art, and Michael Govan, the director of LACMA. In 1969 Heizer, who was in the midst of creating several massive earthwork projects in the Nevada desert, envisioned finding an ideal boulder, then installing it within an art framework. The project was delayed for over four decades, because it seems the right boulder could not be found until the artist discovered one in a rock quarry in Riverside, California in 2006. It had been blasted from a mountainside, and was too big for the quarry’s purposes, so someone contacted Heizer about it. As Govan, a friend and supporter of the artist, stated: “Mike was calling from the Ontario [California] airport and said: ‘I found this amazing rock.’ […] He referred to it as the Colossi of Memnon and compared it to the great pink granite Egyptian obelisks for the quality of the stone. He said it was one of the greatest rocks he’d ever seen.”
Let us remember that Egyptian obelisks, perhaps the most illustrative examples of our lithic obsessions, were highly coveted in ancient and Renaissance Rome, and in Paris during the 19th century. Removed from their original sites, where they had stood in pairs for millennia, these monumental incised granite pillars were transported across the Mediterranean in voyages requiring advanced engineering and ship building skills. In 1836 the 227-ton obelisk that had stood at Luxor, celebrating the illustrious reign of Ramses II, arrived in Paris where it was erected in an event viewed by a cheering crowd of 200,000. The chosen location, the Place de La Concorde, was an infamous piece of real estate: it was the exact spot upon which the most gruesome apparatus of the Revolution once stood, the guillotine. The French, seemingly unaware of the irony, elected to install an ancient monolith extolling the reign of one absolute monarch on the spot where they executed another.
Govan shared Heizer’s enthusiasm for the boulder and quickly decided the jumbo rock should settle down at LACMA. An area of two-and-a-half acres on the museum’s 20-acre campus was selected as the site, and plans were drawn to transport the behemoth across the 105 miles that separated it from the museum. A company that specializes in moving massive structures was engaged to engineer a 200-foot long transporter with 176 wheels that would move at five mph, and only at night, recalling the herculean efforts of the past when thousands of miles were logged in transporting Egyptian obelisks to their new European sites. After much planning, the necessary permits were obtained and the rock began its slow-speed journey on February 28, 2012.
In a stroke of genius by the museum and its publicity department, the move became a huge media event, covered by television and the press, the rock’s nightly progress eagerly charted by reporters. As the coverage expanded, so did the crowds, who, seeing the rock on television and the Internet, realized a celebrity was passing through their midst. A headline in the Los Angeles Times read: “LACMA’s Michael Govan talks about his new rock star.” In its roundabout route, the rock, cloaked in protective white sheeting, traveled through cities not usually associated with art or celebrities, including Chino, Norwalk, Lakewood, Gardena and Inglewood. Nearly 20,000 people watched the shrouded monolith pass through a Long Beach neighborhood. People had heard that the rock was going to become art, and they wanted to catch a glimpse of it before it changed. It was as if an ancient pharaoh was passing through the streets of the city, and like a monarch, it rode on an illuminated, red palanquin attended by a crew of twelve, and escorted by the police. Cheering spectators welcomed the rock when it reached LACMA in the early morning hours of March 10th after its 11-night journey. Heizer’s design called for a 456-foot long, 15-foot wide, 15-foot deep sloping cement slot upon which the rock would rest atop the slot’s center point, allowing visitors to walk beneath the hulking form. It was titled Levitated Mass, but because of safety concerns, especially in earthquake country, the design had to be altered to insure that the rock would be securely fixed to its supporting walls. Two steel plates were devised to bear most of the weight and to prevent the mass from moving. In addition, the rock had to be cut into at the points where it met the support plates. Threaded rods held it onto these supporting steel corbels and steel wedges. In addition, epoxy was inserted into various small cavities under it. Any illusion of levitation was erased. Although it was massive, it certainly wasn’t levitating. This was a major disappointment and it puzzled visitors. (During several visits, I spoke with a number of them.) The novelty of walking under a securely fastened rock hardly registered on the shock and awe scale. The rock was colossal, but the thrill was gone.
Gone too was the environment. Renzo Piano’s minimal landscape for the adjacent Resnick Pavilion, which had obliterated the area’s original mature oaks and sycamores, was now made even more antiseptic with the installation of a decomposed granite surface unblemished by any living thing. In this barren realm, there is nothing to block or reflect the strong sunlight, and it is unpleasantly hot in summer. In order to cope with the lack of shade and the intense heat, the museum deviated from Heizer’s austere plan and installed white beach umbrellas to protect the security guards who watch over the rock. (The slot is a natural lure for skateboarders, and the rock must be tempting to taggers.) This acknowledgment of human needs, an unintended consequence of the design, underscores how stark the project is at heart. The flimsy umbrellas impinge on Heizer’s brutal vision, yet, in their subtle defiance, they bring a sense of humanity to the otherwise blasted plain. And in winter, when Los Angeles can receive torrents of rain fresh off the Pacific, the plain is susceptible to becoming a muddy mess, transforming the slot into an actual slippery slope. In December, the installation was “closed due to rain.” Pity the poor boulder: after 150 million years of surviving untold weather extremes, it took only six months in its new location for a rainstorm to shut it down.
At the northern perimeter of the rock’s barren terrain stands a row of fully grown palm trees, part of Robert Irwin’s extensive palm plantings surrounding the Resnick Pavilion. They impart to the installation an Egyptian motif, and as Govan said: “I and many others have compared this sculpture […] to the granite monuments of Ancient Egypt.” Let us not forget that palm trees have been used in Los Angeles to signify and imitate every exotic culture where they grow naturally, from North Africa to the South Seas, in an attempt to portray the region as a balmy paradise. Palms were also a favorite of the Spanish missionaries who planted them because of their Biblical associations, although those allusions evaporated long ago. Only one species of palm, Washingtonia filifera, the California fan palm, is actually native to Southern California, but even so, palms were uncommon anomalies in Los Angeles before the region became horticulturally colonized and extensively irrigated.
Los Angeles is not tropical and does not receive the annual rainfall necessary to sustain masses of thirsty palm trees. They exist naturally on rainy tropical isles or at desert oases fed by underground springs, yet they have become the symbol of an environment whose water-conserving native trees include oaks, sycamores and bay laurels. Although meant to symbolize a version of paradise, whether tropical or Biblical, palms in Los Angeles have also come to indicate something more than just the decoys of boosters eager to lull unsuspecting outsiders into thinking the city was truly heaven on earth. With their odd resemblance to upside-down exclamation points, palms accentuate the exuberant dreams and unprecedented aspirations that have characterized Angelenos. Though the botanical message of palms was incorrect, the metaphorical one was apt. In a city full of horticultural incongruities, ersatz architecture and cultural oddities, palms, as punctuation points, mark Los Angeles as the first postmodern city. With its purposeful disassociation from the past and its disregard for history, Los Angeles has maintained a casual relationship with facts, and with its lack of a center, its unabashed embrace of novelty, and with a mountain range running through it, Los Angeles broke with any known civic style. The usual urban definitions do not apply to Los Angeles, where trees have been used as decoys for over a century. During the Southern California real estate boom of the 1880s, promoters set out decoy orange trees in order to make home sites attractive to unsuspecting Easterners: they would simply hang oranges on any nearby tree. Irwin’s Egypto-kitsch palms, coy stand-ins for real trees, have no arboreal purpose — they are metaphorical decoys meant to evoke an exotic reverie. As Govan remarked: “In 2007, Robert Irwin was commissioned by LACMA to plant around the campus a carefully curated grouping of exotic species of palm trees from around the world […] Irwin has scrutinized the trees as sculptural objects, collected and organized in a museum environment.” Irwin himself stated, although not too confidently: “Palms almost become a sign, an icon, in a way. It’s sort of our plant.”
In addition to the palms, the rock and its desolate prospect reinforce another popular delusion from which Los Angeles has long suffered: the widespread belief that the city is actually a desert. Local lore has it that until William Mulholland devised the titanic scheme that brought water to Los Angeles from the Owens Valley in 1913, the city was a desert and that without Mulholland’s water, it would revert to sand, wither, and die. Of course, Los Angeles is not a desert, as anyone who has ever spent even a minute in one of Los Angeles’ many canyons — from Topanga to Laurel, from Benedict to Beachwood — can testify. The region’s climate is correctly known as Mediterranean, characterized by dry summers and mild, wet winters—and with an average annual rainfall total of 15 inches, Los Angeles cannot qualify as a desert. (Average desert rainfall is five inches.) Yet this profound misunderstanding of the natural environment endures, and has led many to insist that not only is Los Angeles a physical desert, it is a cultural one as well. The city has suffered the scorn of cultural arbiters for over a century based in part on the desert myth. The Getty just spent $10 million in a brave attempt to refute it with its Pacific Standard Time exhibitions. Even Michael Govan has perpetuated the falsehood. In one of his statements on the Heizer piece, he said: “We are a city in the desert. That to me was very important, identifying this place by artwork.” For Govan, a purpose of Levitated Mass is to define Los Angeles as a desert. This peculiar aim is troubling, based as it is on a popular delusion. The fact that Los Angeles is not a desert seems to be irrelevant, yet the wishes of those who prefer to view the city as such prevail. Their mirage is a mighty one.
Even Reyner Banham, who so eloquently and perceptively described the phenomenon that is Los Angeles, gave mild support to the myth when, in Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, he describes the local soil as almost desert: “Whatever man has done subsequently to the climate and environment of Southern California, it remains one of the ecological wonders of the habitable world. Given water to pour on its light and otherwise almost desert soil, it can be made to produce a reasonable facsimile of Eden.” Almost desert soil is a clever way to skirt the issue, and rather than refute, the statement only enhanced the myth of Los Angeles-as-desert.
Banham is surely correct, however, when he describes Southern California as a “reasonable facsimile of Eden.” With its ideal climate, where the roots of history were shallow, Southern California became a haven for settlers who created an environment that imitated every conceivable genre, inventing their own past as they went along. Southern California could be nothing other than a facsimile — or, it could be something entirely new. It became both. Heizer’s quarried rock and facsimile desert both fit this pattern, while also being a direct riposte to the very idea of Eden, and a bitter comment on it. As paradisaical as Los Angeles might be, it could, through an ecological or nuclear disaster, become a desert, as the setting implies. Palm trees and desert — the old Los Angeles stereotype invoked yet again in this bleak installation. Lacking artfulness, or any transcendent qualities, the landscape and the boulder fail to inspire. The soil is barren. No human mark adorns the surface of the rock, and although Heizer compared his rock to an Egyptian obelisk, he chose not to incise its granite essence. It is dull. Driving through the enormous Wawona Tree in Yosemite was a more exciting adventure in scale and novelty.
Yet in a superb bit of irony, the rock is located in that section of Los Angeles known as the Miracle Mile. (In the City of Angels, hope springs eternal, and rightly so.) A hulking rock in a faux desert can’t dampen the spirit of this idiosyncratic place. Conspiring against the unsuspecting rock, there is a force that cuts the mighty mass down to the scale and style of Los Angeles, a force that makes the behemoth actually levitate, its serious aims dismantled — the rock ascends through levity, one of Los Angeles’ essential qualities. In the land of Googie and mimetic architecture, in the place where cinematic make-believe emerged, the rock can be experienced through other means: humor, even slapstick. Laughter makes the rock rise. It doesn’t take much to imagine the boulder as a gigantic wedding ring. Set on its slot like a multi-carat diamond, it conjures up Elizabeth Taylor’s own infamous rock. In form, the mass looks like a dehydrated Matterhorn, and with its pear shape, it bears an uncanny resemblance to the fruits — oranges, watermelons and strawberries — that were exaggerated to many times their original size in postcards of Southern California circa 1910. Fatefully, there is an even more satisfying way to look at the boulder that doesn’t involve imagining a thing. All one has to do is look up. Across Wilshire Boulevard, looming high above the museum and the rock, is a 31-story skyscraper currently occupied by a Hollywood newspaper. Its familiar one-word, red logo installed at the top, shines above, mocking the make-believe monotone desert: Variety. This accidental convergence, this miraculous sign in the sky, diffuses the pretentions of Levitated Mass, providing a random cosmic joke that illuminates the real meaning of Los Angeles, and of art. Until LACMA acquires the sign, the installation remains incomplete.