LACMA's Pet Rock

Clockwise: The rock at the quarry from the LACMA Unframed blog, The Public Fruit Theater as it was installed; A Google Earth view of the Public Fruit Theater, and the 106 mile route of the rock.
Clockwise: The rock at the quarry from the LACMA Unframed blog, The Public Fruit Theater as it was installed; A Google Earth view of the Public Fruit Theater, and the 106 mile route of the rock.

On Friday May 6, 2011, we had orders from LACMA to dismantle the Public Fruit Theater two months earlier than expected. The fruit theater was directly in the way of the trench for Michael Heizer's Levitated Mass. We completed building the theater in November of 2010 as a collaboration with Fallen Fruit and their year-long residency, with the culminating event EATLACMA.

The amphitheater was built out of recycled broken concrete pieces and aggregate, with an orange tree in the middle. It took us approximately ten days to build and was primarily subsidized by our company, with a quarter of the cost paid by LACMA, with a total budget of around $20k. Despite the overall size and weight of the amphitheater (approximately 100 tons), the carbon footprint was low because of the use of reclaimed and re-purposed materials. In two days, we disassembled the broken concrete theater piece by piece, and nothing was left except for dirt.

Currently, LACMA is putting its institutional muscle into moving a 340-ton rock from a quarry in Riverside into the heart of Los Angeles. It will cost around $10 million to move the 21.5 feet high boulder, on a custom built steel transporter with 196 wheels, 22 axels, weighing over 1.2 million pounds on Los Angeles County streets, on an arduous 106 mile route, thanks to Hanjin shipping. Not to mention, city and municipal crews will have to restring overhead wires, and take down traffic signs en route. Is “art for art's sake” enough to justify the expense, petroleum, resources, building materials and jeopardizing our already failing city streets with 1.2 million pounds of a shrink wrapped rock?

The amphitheater designed in collaboration with Fallen Fruit, Matias Viegner, David Burns and Austin Young, was a modest, casual place for locals and museum-goers to eat lunch, relax, congregate and contemplate the orange tree, which used to cover much of Southern California's agricultural lands. It was made from recycled broken concrete collected from a local facility outside of downtown Los Angeles. The installation juxtaposed Los Angeles’ agrarian past against the now hustling and bustling concrete city of today. In addition, by using indigenous techniques with modern repurposed materials the amphitheater symbolized the value in honoring and learning from the past. 

In the field of landscape architecture, recent public spaces have emerged from taking tombstones of industrialization and converting them into living spaces of beneficial habitat, enjoyment, education, art and play. For example, The High Line in New York, once an industrial freight car line set for demolition, revitalized into a world-renowned elevated park and viewing platform of Manhattan. Or Landschaftspark duisburg-nord in Germany, an abandoned steel mill turned into acres of wildlife habitat and park. Even institutions like The California Academy of Sciences and their spectacular green roof can provide a model way to attract tourists, encourage cultural activities and engage community, while also creating an experience that sits at the intersection of art and landscape.

After all, what is the long-term civic goal of an artwork such as Levitated Mass? Is it a theme park like spectacle to increase museum revenue? In that case, LACMA could have done a better job putting its weight behind sustainable, smart and innovative art, landscape architecture, and living earthworks, not the ecologically damaging altar of a massive boulder mined from a quarry. Levitated Mass symbolizes excess, consumption and ownership, which is the direct cause of our diminishing resources. This mindset feeds short term wants, but fails to conserve resources for future needs.

To add insult to injury, Michael Govan claims that LACMA is "putting more people to work here in L.A. than Obama." What Govan is referring to is Obama’s efforts to create new jobs and reduce unemployment rates and stimulate growth. It's beyond prudence to claim you're doing better at creating jobs than Obama in L.A. It's shortsighted to say the least, a rationalized justification of excess. Michael Heizer first thought of the idea of Levitated Mass in the 1960s, and you can tell. If successful Levitated Mass will not be a feat in engineering, but rather a dated monolithic erection of unsustainability.

$10 million towards building a green roof at LACMA could have been a well-spent and artistic endeavor for creating innovative and beneficial public space. Green roofs decrease building energy use, prevent urban runoff, and lessen the amount of pollutants in the watershed. LACMA has over 100,000 square feet of potential roof that could be converted into palatial expanses of Mediterranean gardens among contemporary art sculptures, and installations. Instead we will have a rock, like a massive vaulted tombstone among acres of water thirsty lawn and palm trees on the museum campus. A private bombastic trophy housed on public land.

The irony is that LACMA already had a sustainable earthwork on its campus, a contemporary artwork built using ancient techniques, using recycled materials, but they had it demolished to install a quarried goliath of excess.