From Notes on Metamodernism, Stephen Knudsen, James Elkins, Timotheus Vermeulen, Robin van den Akker and Luke Turner on Michael Heizer’s “Levitated Mass”
It has been almost two years since Michael Heizer’s 340-ton quarry boulder was delivered to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and exalted as “Levitated Mass.” The media buzz is long gone. What is left to say about it? Well, the on-ground oglers talk about it every day, and if Heizer has his way, they will do so for the next 3,500 years. Even the skeptics have to admit that something new and interesting is likely to come up in conversation in that span. Not to wait, in an effort to start a new kind of conversation about the rock, theorists Stephen Knudsen, James Elkins and NoM editors Timotheus Vermeulen, Robin van den Akker and Luke Turner weigh in through this three-part essay. In late April/ early May, the sculpture comes into spectacular alignment with the sun and this is key to the discussion (see image below). In the context of this alignment the following questions are posed: Is Levitated Mass reflective of older ideas of the sublime, The Kantian sublime or is it reflective of a newer immersive, the postmodern sublime? Or does it paradoxically operate within and ultimately beyond the philosophy of both?
Act One: Celestial Rocks, Rivers, and Metamodernity
By Stephen Knudsen
Long before I ever concerned myself with theories of modernity, postmodernity, and metamodernity, I was a kid growing up in the backwaters of the Missouri Ozarks. It was a place where spring-fed rivers ran as clear as air over bedrock. There was a place (forgive me for keeping the secret) where two streams came together: one ice cold—even in summer—and one warm. On summer days, we could mess with our haptic senses by floating at the interface of these merging streams, doing a roll into the warm water when we got too cold and rolling back into the cold water when we got too warm.
Much later, as a college student working toward degrees in both immunology and fine art, something messed with me like those two streams. In the sciences, the 16th century modern current of Francis Bacon ruled with its dogged empiricism and belief in decipherable universal truths. However, in the humanities, the current of Immanuel Kant’s 18th century philosophy of human subjectivity ruled. In the famous preface to the Critique of Pure Reason Kant concludes that scientific knowledge is systematic knowledge of the nature of existing things as we perceive them, rather than as they are in themselves. He states:
Up to now it has been assumed that all our cognition must conform to the objects; but all attempts to find out something about them a priori through concepts that would extend our cognition have, on this presupposition come to nothing. Hence let us want to try whether we do not get farther with the problems of metaphysics by assuming that the objects must conform to our cognition.1
What a contrast this is to Bacon’s call to let facts speak for themselves without imposing our subjective ideas on them. Kant went further and doubted empiricism’s program with finding out more and more until there was nothing left in the universe to find out. To Kant, the real limitation to knowing more was not running out of things to know. The limitation was a threshold of knowing that we could not cross because of ourselves, because of the limitations of our cognitive structures and five senses…
These Kantian notions of the 18th century would come to nourish the evolving humanities. These ideas concerning subjectivity and human limitations merged into Hegel’s philosophy and then Heidegger’s and then ultimately into the postmodernism of Rorty, Derrida, Lyotard, and others. The ideas vigorously evolved of course. Consider ideas of unintelligibility linked to the sublime, that which in Kantian terms crushes human imagination under “dynamical” and“mathematical” infinitudes. Kant claims that the sublime, ultimately an early modern outlook, evokes both fear and a feeling of pleasure leading to transcendence: a regard for the spiritual nature of existence. The postmodern sublime, however, is built on ultimate failure with no transcendence. This will be discussed in the context of Levitated Mass later in this essay.
Regarding the sublime and other aspects of human experience I suspect that most of us navigate both modern and postmodern attitudes in a state of flux and over-lap, in what Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akken call metamodernity. The smart money is on Timotheus Vermeulen with remarks like this:
“The metamodern generation oscillates between a postmodern doubt and a modern desire for sense: for meaning, for direction. Grand narratives are as necessary as they are problematic, hope is not simply something to distrust, love not necessarily something to be ridiculed.”2
I think this feeling has been prevalent for a long time, and it is just becoming easier to see now that postmodernism’s over-boil has settled somewhat in the last decade or two. We should remember the early post-pomo voices that forecasted this tiring of postmodern thought. For example David Foster Wallace’s essay E Unibus Pluram (circa 1993) suggested that what had made postmodernism vital—such as irony, appropriation and obsessive intertextuality—would moderate.3
Returning for a moment to my impression of the humanities/science divide, I should admit that the reality is not so simple. The sciences deliver utopia and dystopia with equal vigor and from this the metamodern whirl flourishes. In the sciences, for example E=mc2 in 1905 is not the same as the E=mc2 in 1945 or today. What started as an elegant demonstration of human intellect is now a sublime accouterment to thermonuclear theory and practice that wants to undo us if we make one wrong move. Of course, even the greatest modern empiricists have postmodern doubt and tears at times (ex. Robert Oppenheimer in 1945) .
And then flipping the idea, even the greatest postmodernist, Jean Francois Lyotard, wrote at times more like the modern Malevich than postmodern Derrida. In The Inhuman/ Reflections on Time, Lyotard asks us to think in geologic time, not the usual puny human time. He reminds us that to prevent the obliteration of human thought when the sun burns out in 5 billion years, such thought will need a new kind of carrier. The utopian modernist Kasimir Malevich (painter of White on White) predicted human evolution into pure energy. Imagine the new sun we might find traveling at 186,000 miles per second. (Round that up to 187,000 if you are an optimist.) Lyotard ,like Malevich, conjectures about a great escape as well, but our machines, not pure energy, will trancend us and transport human thought to the friendlier places in the Milky Way and beyond.4 Both thoughts are over-the-top modern. Be careful for the utopia you wish for!
Thinking on geologic time always transcends our -isms. Like Lyotard, artworks occasionally take us outside of ourselves with honest reflection on scope.
Enter, Michael Heizer’s Levitated Mass.
Act Two: Levitated Mass/ Worth a Second Look5
By Stephen Knudsen
In the media blitz two years ago over Michael Heizer’s 340-ton rock fragment sculpture Levitated Mass, clichés never had it so good. Journalists just couldn’t resist:
“Art is in the Eye of the Boulder,” “There is a New Rock Star in L.A.,” “Rock of Ages,” “I Am a Rock, I Am an Island.”
So where to begin?
Full disclosure: I am a rock-loving art critic from the east who got to the rock debut at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art thirteen months late. In April 2013, I was on the panel of an aesthetics symposium the day after my encounter with Levitated Mass and remember remarking to one of my colleagues from L.A. that I had just spent a whole day with the rock. His face had inscrutability written all over it as he said, “It took you all day to see that rock?!” I thought I was just playing the role of a good pilgrim.
This is an April 20th sunset with near perfect sun-to-stone alignment. Image courtesy of Stephen Knudsen
And so I was. Okay, the full truth: I was also trying to see something that might have been missed in the media blitz. And I think I did see something that might get even the monolith haters to take a second look—and we know you are out there, you 50% plus who passed by me on my watch. (No disrespect intended.) More on what I saw later.
First, for those who may not have tuned in to the story, here is a summary:
Last year, Levitated Mass was finally transformed from a 1969 Michael Heizer sketch into a sculpture on the grounds of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The concept was realized through a partnership between LACMA’s Chief Executive Officer, Michael Govan, and artist Michael Heizer.
Govan played a role beyond the typical administrator. He did more than just make space for Heizer’s 340-ton rock on museum grounds. Govan promoted Heizer’s vision, worked with museum board of directors to raise funds from private donors, and visited the quarry for promotional video-ops with the rock. He helped Heizer tangle with the skeptics—with Cristo/Jeanne-Claude like fervor—in getting municipal transportation permits and in getting permission to take down power lines, stop lights, etc. to let the truck pass through municipalities on the trip to the museum. 6
Levitated Mass is in a rare big league of rock moving. Blocks in the Egyptian pyramids at about 2.5 tons are 140 times smaller than Heizer’s granite. Stonehenge is more comparable, at about 250 tons each and moved (by some estimates) 160 miles. The 110 billion people who have inhabited earth have moved a lot of rock around, but almost never as such large pieces. The 10 million dollar Heizer project moved the 340-ton quarry boulder 105 miles by a special 196-wheeled transport to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. As a football-field long centipede, this contraption inched the rock along to its destination for eleven nights.
Heizer is infamously closed-mouthed about his art. In a National Public Radio interview shortly before the install, he spoke cautiously about the boulder, explaining that he liked the rock as a “specimen” because it had no blast fissures. But when pressed to explain more, the artist said, “I am not big on talking about art.” So Michael Govan took up the slack as the main public spokesman. In the same NPR interview, Govan foretold of the magic of the piece. Speaking of a descending ramp that the boulder would be perched upon, he told potential spectators, “You will be able to walk down under it. As you walk under it that rock bottom moves up and you will feel the sense of a huge monolith that’s kind of levitated.” 7
Once installed, Levitated Mass produced its share of viewers crying foul on the promised levitation. (See the digital commons for details.)
So, finally, what I saw: Through most of the day I liked the rock well enough—the two stories of perched granite with a full narrative structure, geologic time contained, and the Stanley Kubrick exhibition inside the museum offering a contrasting monolith. Observing the observers was enlightening—from the folks of the “biggest embarrassment in L.A.” persuasion to the five year old who walked down the ramp ahead of his parents and then asked me, “Is this the biggest rock in the world?” Not much new to report there.
But something extraordinary occurred at sunset. For starters, everyone present became believers. Unlike any other time of day—some even took to lying down in the trench. As I faced due west on that spring day, the sun dropped directly behind the rock to be perfectly eclipsed. The sun then reappeared as it dropped into the slot of the ramped space directly below the monolith. As we walked down the ramp in these final minutes of sunset, two relative motions intersected: the sun dropped and the rock rose. Thus, the seemingly grand narrative of moving the rock was, in the end, just a blip in the bigger story that points to sublime space, celestial movement, and geologic time. And that, to my way of thinking, rises above cliché.
Act Three : Discussing Levitated Mass
Heizer makes me wonder if it’s worth revisiting the idea of the sublime. Here, sublime is vast in time and space, which is close to Kant’s original “mathematical” and “dynamical” sublime. There is an overlay of late romanticism in the emphasis on individual viewers’ reactions, and there’s a need for hyperbole and excess (the largest stone, the most amazing illusion, the unparalleled installation) that reminds me of what Karsten Harries called “the kitsch economy.”
All this by way of saying Heizer’s is an old-fashioned sublime, unlike more recent postmodern senses of the sublime, which have to do with inevitable partial failure; lack of transcendence; the inadequacy of the artist’s imagination and means; an uncertainty about the function of the sublime; modesty in scale and ambition; and references to local, subjective time rather than time that comes in pieces other than infinity and “geologic” epochs.
In short, I wonder if this, and associated pieces and projects, are as much a part of an older modernism as they are part of the newly immersive, spectacular pieces we’ve come to expect from artists like Eliasson in the last ten years.
I hope Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker weigh in on the fit of Levitated Mass into a metamodern framework. Your last sentence, especially, promotes Levitated Mass as an object of metamodern concern with its flirtation with both old-fashioned sublime (the Kantian disinterested sublime) and the postmodern spectacle.
I do agree that Levitated Mass is capable of invoking sublime feeling. Sure, just contemplating most rocks, then star dust, then the cosmos, and then time does it also. Anything that sets our limited intellects out on a head-on crash with the infinite and the incomprehensible can evoke such feelings. But often we need more than just rocks or a sunset to do it. A little more spectacle added to the familiar spectacular can jar us. The Levitated Mass/May 1 sunset has potential to do that.
But you are right that this is no kitsch/hubris spectacle. There are aspects of the sculpture that are not easily accessible to the intellect. Someone asked me how long Levitated Mass would be on view. I quoted Heizer on that: “3,500 years.” Levitated Mass has vast geologic time built into it, and it will probably collect a magnificent amount more.
I would add to your modern sincerity argument that since Heizer conceived of Levitated Mass in 1969, it has some late modern sincerity overwritten in it as well. I would bring to the argument what the late Greenbergian modernists so loved: disinterested beauty. It is certainly a sculpture made of rock that maintains its rockness as the primary force in the work. Add to this Heizer’s unwillingness to art-talk about the piece and it makes one suspect that the intent at least is to allow a blank slate for the state of disinterested beauty to better take hold.
I agree with Jim and Stephen in as far as I also feel that Levitated Mass warrants a perusing of Kant’s Critique of Judgment more than a browse through the writings of Lyotard. In fact, you might say that in a sense the installation is a metaphor for Kant’s notion of the sublime, since it symbolizes culture’s moral conquest of a nature that is too massive, too monstrous, both temporally and spatially, to be understood intuitively. There is a ‘but’, however. Jim draws an interesting comparison between Heizer’s rock and the kitsch economy, which is to suggest that the work presents an overly simplified, self-contained totality that negates the complexities of the outside reality. It is true that in its instant overwhelmingness, its upending of the rules of gravity, its discard for the laws of civilization, it creates, or at least sets out to create, a solipsistic moment of perverse perfection. Yet as the quantity and intensity of talk about the project’s crazy costs (ten million dollars, funded privately in the midst of a financial crisis caused by the privatization of the economy, as if to press our noses onto the poverty of the people) and environmental damage demonstrate, this immersive experience is always about to be exposed. It asks you to experience it as one thing (a sort of performative moment in Eshelman’s sense) in spite of the other things you know about it. Levitated Mass blows a bubble that it anticipates will burst. Here, in the irresolvable tension between the sublime and the subliminal, the immersive and exposition, the bubble and its bursting, we find an appreciation of the sublime that appeals principally to Kant but is answered by Lyotard. Levitated Mass both constructs a moment of sublime experience and deconstructs the problematic process by which that experience was achieved, attempting presentation in spite of its ethical, political and formal unrepresentableness.
Robin van den Akker
The aesthetic of Levitated Mass, which, as James and Stephen suggest, evokes the sense of geological time as much as the spectacular now, reminds me of the recent “geological turn” (if you want to call it that) in architecture. Architectural practices such as BIG, Snohetta, Herzog & De Meuron and many others have of late won critical acclaim not by abandoning spectacular, eye-catching forms (in the vein of the postmodern starchitects) but by taking iconic architecture into another, more contemporary direction. They for instance conjure up giant icebergs and cracked glaciers or, indeed, eroded rocks and mountain formations (see also our essay on the topic and the very interesting, recently published Land Form Building, edited by Stan Allen and Marc McQuade).8. I wrote ‘contemporary’ because it is hard to resist the thought that this recent flurry of schemes tapping into a geological sensibility is somehow related to today’s revived interest in sustainable ways of living in the face of civilizational collapse and planetary destruction. So in architecture and the arts we can observe a similar development.
This, in turn, reminds me of Fredric Jameson’s discussion of the Sublime and the Beautiful in his essay The End of Art, The End of History. His argument—awash, in typical Jamesonian fashion, with dialectical reversals and critical digressions —is far more complex than I could possibly do justice here. However, he basically argues, not with but beyond Kant and Hegel, that the first half of art, i.e. the Sublime, invests art after its first, ‘post-romantic’ end and that the second half of art, i.e. the Beautiful, reemerges after its second, ‘post-modern’ end. He, simply put, identifies artistic modernism with the Sublime and artistic postmodernism with the beautiful (and, by extension, the respective cultural logics).
“Modernism aspires to the sublime as to its very essence, which we may call trans-aesthetic, insofar as it lays a claim to the Absolute, that is, it believes that in order to be art at all, art must be something beyond art. [Under postmodernism, we witness] the survival of art’s other half, namely the beautiful, which now invests the cultural realm at the moment in which the production of the modern has gradually dried up. [This is one of the faces] of postmodernity, the return of Beauty and the decorative, in the place of the older modern Sublime, the abandonment by art of the quest for the absolute or of truth claims and its redefinition as a source of sheer pleasure and gratification […]. Art thus, in this new age, seems to have sunk back to the older culinary status it enjoyed before the dominance of the sublime.”9
One doesn’t have to agree with this simplification to see the elegance of the proposition.
In my opinion it is significant that the museum went through so much trouble realizing Heizer’s project precisely a this moment in time—or rather History. They could have opted for a giant, McCarthy-esque dildo or a giant pencil a la Oldenburgh—or any other inflated, witty installation. Yet they didn’t. So where does this leave us?
First of all, the installation seems to stand for today’s return of, or interest in, the trans-aesthetic—here, in the form of the sublime; elsewhere, in the shape of truth claims, as well as the quest for utopian horizons or alternative forms of life—precisely at the moment in which the production of the postmodern has dried up. Artists and Architects once more attempt to move beyond the merely decorative (in the sense that even the shocking exaggeration, the fun house mirror and the clever deconstruction end up being merely decorative, unable to be anything other than the spectacular imitation—as parody, pastiche or ironic comment—of actually existing capitalism) and explore whether we can still form social relations, communicate experiences or invent life forms that are not structured around calculation and accumulation.
Second of all, the installation demonstrates, too, our inability to return to the trans-aesthetic proper in an age that is characterized by the omnipresence of the logic of the market. Whereas the modern trans-aesthetic could still lay claim to some kind of authenticity or relate to some kind of purity uncorrupted by the logic of the commodity, the metamodern trans-aesthetic is per definition entangled—complicit even—with capital. Here, indeed, the boulder also is incorporated within commodity culture: privately funded by investors and installed to attract tourists (and the same goes for those geological forms in architecture).
The point I am trying to make is that in the metamodern mode of artistic production (and in metamodern culture in general) these aspects are not mutually exclusive or rather that, today, these aspects are held in tension.
The discussion here brings to mind an experience I had earlier this year when, somewhat unexpectedly, I found myself transporting my very own rock to the top of a mountain. I’d been abroad filming, collecting footage of the burnt forests of Andratx, when this most striking of stones, soot black with fiery crimson flashes, caught my eye. Without any great thought, I made the decision to pick it up and carry it to the summit to photograph there.
In the grand scheme of things, both rock and mountain were rather pathetically modest in scale: the rock barely the size of a rugby ball; the mountain avoiding the indignity of being classified as a hill by merely a matter of inches (the fact of which I’ve just confirmed on Wikipedia, saving further embarrassment). Nonetheless, the rock had a real heft to it that, combined with the weight of my camera equipment (not to mention the inappropriateness of my choice of flat-soled suede footwear), meant I came close to giving up on several occasions. I persisted, I think, only out of stubbornness and a desire for some sense of artistic completion.
On my descent, having left the rock carefully positioned at the summit, I reflected upon the pictures I had made, and the value, if any, of the whole exercise. I began to wonder whether the small act of moving this remote fragment of earth might, in fact, endure for longer than anything I would ever produce. Would it stay put for a matter of months, or for millennia? In contrast to the relatively ephemeral properties of my photographic practice, I was seduced by the notion—albeit an illusory one—of a command over nature that appeared to enable a tangible reversal of entropy, elevating once more that which had been destined to fall.
Although obviously on a wildly more gargantuan scale, Heizer’s Levitated Mass stands as a monument to this same desire for control; a desire that ultimately always proves futile. By considering the work in terms of its feat of ingenuity, and the sincerity of its (modernist) artistic vision, we are unavoidably placing man at the centre of things. And, as Stephen has described above, here we might oscillate between an experience of the Kantian and postmodern sublimes, confronted with the potential for transcendence or its inevitable failure (especially given the work’s inescapable financial controversy). What these positions both share, though, is a common, vertiginous sense of a world existing beyond the limits of our comprehension and control, that can only ever appear sublime for us.
However, the work also seems to strike a chord with the emerging object-oriented philosophies, which promise to steer us towards yet another version of the sublime. As the speculative realist thinker Timothy Morton rather colourfully puts it, “the Kantian aesthetic dimension is an experiential condom that shrink wraps objects in a protective film.”10. By contrast, he envisages a sublime born from a radical intimacy with real entities, sidestepping the correlationist trap, where “strange strangers” interact by way of “sensual contact” with other objects. Here, writes Morton, “The way objects appear to one another is sublime: it’s a matter of contact with alien presence.”11
In today’s digital world, where almost our every action is converted into packets of energy and whisked across the globe at the speed of light, we are perhaps closer than ever to realising Malevich’s aforementioned prophecy. In an age overloaded with CGI and simulacra, we find ourselves in danger of losing touch with materiality itself. We have, however, understandably grown tired of artists’ factories churning out the sort of oversized ironic trinkets that Robin alludes to. What could be further removed from that type of banal insubstantiality, then, or exude a greater sense of materiality and actuality, than a massive, inanimate chunk of solid rock? The perfect antidote to our hypermediated existences.
Since I haven’t yet been able to make my own pilgrimage to LACMA, Heizer’s Levitated Mass only exists for me through photographs and descriptions. Thus, I’m unable to comment first-hand on the experience of a direct encounter, although I have little doubt it is, in every sense of the word, quite awesome. Heizer’s narrative appears to be one of an exceptional care and sensitivity towards his materials that, above all else, feels uncommonly satisfying and uplifting, in spite of its exorbitant expense. The artist’s silence here only adds to the air of archaic modernist mysticism—of one man’s dedicated pursuit of the Absolute—that a younger metamodern generation finds itself intuitively attracted to (with reservations, of course).
During my own brief encounter with the mountain and rock, I realised I had come to form some sort of empathic attachment to those objects. Whether this constituted the sort of radical intimacy that Morton describes, I really can’t be sure. What I started to realise, however, is that I had begun to attempt to consider things from the rock’s perspective, to imagine the object’s own sense of the world, and to speculate about the effect my small intervention had had amongst the grand expanse of its geologic lifespan.
As for Heizer’s work, in the same manner, with all avenues of the sublime now open to us, I can envisage the metamodern spectator also asking the strange and rather beautiful question: Is the experience of Levitated Mass sublime for the rock?
1. Kant, Immanuel, Preface to the second Edition, Critique of Pure Reason, 2007 translation, Palgrave Macmillan
2. Potter, Cher, “Interview with Timotheus Vermeulen”, Tank Magazine, Spring 2013.For the opening salvo to “metamodernism,” see Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker. “Notes on Metamodernism,” Journal of Aesthetics and Culture, 2 (2010), accessed November 25, 2013, http://aestheticsandculture.net/index.php/jac/article/view/5677/6304.
3.Wallace was a harbinger in the after-postmodernism question in a way that is analogous to those writers of the after-modernism question of the late ’60s and early ’70s. Such writers could tell that modernism had stopped “working” properly, but nobody knew precisely what was next (e.g. Rosalind Krauss’s 1972 essay, “A View of Modernism”). Note: This section on Wallace owes a great debt to my colleague and collaborator, Jason Hoelscher.
4. See Jean- François Lyotard The Inhuman: Essays on Time, translated by Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby (Standford: Stanford University Press, 1991), 11-19. (Paraphrasing mine).
5. This act uses excerpts from Stephen Knudsen’s article in the Huffington Post, “Levitated Mass /Worth a Second Look,” May 9, 2013, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/stephen-knudsen/levitated-mass-worth-a-se_b_3242725.html
6. Michael Govan, Lecture panel deFine art, SCAD Museum of Art, February, 2013.
7. Jaffe, Ina ,”340 Tons of Art: ‘Levitated Mass’ To Rock L.A”. , NPR link:
8. Stan Allen and Marc McQuade (ed.) Land Form Building: Architecture’s New Terrain (Lars-Mueller Publishers, 2011).
9. Fredric Jameson, The Cultural Turn. Selected writings on the Postmodern, 1983-1998 (London/NEw York: Verso, 2009), pp. 73-92.
10. Morton, Timothy, Sublime Objects, in ‘Speculations II’, 2011, p. 220.
11.. Ibid., p. 221
Michael Heizer, Levitated Mass, 2012, 21′ tall granite quarry fragment in a permanent installation at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Image via: