ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel in Washington.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And I'm Melissa Block at NPR West in Southern California.
Los Angeles has a new rock star. It is literally a rock, a 340-ton granite boulder, more than 21 feet high. It's perched above a long trench, so you can walk under it, and it's the latest creation of artist Michael Heizer. NPR's Ina Jaffe has been following the progress of the work - officially known as "Levitated Mass" - for more than a year. She joins me now here in the studio at NPR West.
Ina, this art installation is at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Where does the museum go about putting a 340-ton boulder and this long trench that will go underneath it?
INA JAFFE, BYLINE: Well, Melissa, LACMA, as the museum is known locally, doesn't really fit the conventional image of a big imposing building with huge staircases or pillars or bronze lions in front. LACMA is more of a campus with buildings from different decades connected by courtyards, a very Southern California indoor-outdoor sort of experience. And the museum's director, Michael Govan, told me that he wanted the museum's public facade not to be the imposing staircase or the bronze lions but works of art.
BLOCK: And LACMA, I gather, has other public art installations not like this big boulder but other public installations on campus?
JAFFE: There are a few. The most prominent is "Urban Light" by Chris Burden. It is this forest of vintage streetlamps on the Wilshire Boulevard side, and it's really become an icon of the city. "Levitated Mass" will go on the other side of the museum where there is parkland, and that's where workers began digging the trench more than a year ago.
(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)
MICHAEL GOVAN: That center section right there where the green pipe is sticking up, the rock goes over that.
JAFFE: Museum director Michael Govan could visualize just how the finished piece would look once the ginormous boulder arrived.
GOVAN: You'll be able to walk down under it. And as you walk down under it, that rock bottom moves up, and you will feel the sense of a huge monolith that's kind of levitated. It's magic.
JAFFE: At the time of this conversation, the big rock was sitting at the Stone Valley Quarry, about 60 miles east. That's where workers from Emmert International were assembling the transport vehicle that would carry it to the museum.
RICK ALBRECHT: You're going to have a two-dolly walking beam here, and then you're going to have in the back is going to be a three-dolly walking beam, which we have over there.
JAFFE: Rick Albrecht was overseeing the job for Emmert. Behind him, the rock sat between two long pieces of red steel. Eventually, the boulder would be slung on cables between those steel beams to evenly distribute the weight. He says his company has hauled all kinds of big heavy challenging stuff.
ALBRECHT: This might be the first time for a rock, but we just moved a building in Salt Lake City that was brick, and it had the old cheap mortar in it. It held together.
JAFFE: When the vehicle was finished, it was roughly 300 feet long with 22 axles and about 200 tires. Albrecht anticipated it would chug along at about five miles an hour only on city streets and only at night with a crew of 12 and police escorts.
ALBRECHT: Oh, there will be an entourage.
JAFFE: So much anticipation. And then nothing happened. For months, the rock, the transporter just sat there at the quarry. Turns out, it wasn't easy to get permits for a thing like this to travel through the four counties and 22 separate cities along its route to the museum. But finally, at the end of February, the boulder began its 11-day journey.
JAFFE: And wherever it stopped, people turned the occasion into a spontaneous street party.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE WILL ROCK YOU")
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) We will, we will rock you.
JAFFE: Dallas Williams couldn't pass up the opportunity to check it out when the rock stopped in Long Beach.
DALLAS WILLIAMS: There's just so many aspects of it. You know, you have the physics, you have the math, you have the science, and you have the art. And it's just so many different things coming together.
JAFFE: The many months that it took for the rock to arrive at the museum is nothing compared to how long it took artist Michael Heizer to find the right rock and the right patrons. The museum funded "Levitated Mass" with about $10 million in private donations. Heizer first made sketches of the project in the 1960s. Then in 2005, a routine blast at Stone Valley Quarry produced the boulder he'd imagined.
MICHAEL HEIZER: What's interesting about this rock is it's not just a piece of quarry fragment, blown-up junk. This doesn't have really any fractures on it at all. This is actually a specimen. This is a geologic specimen.
JAFFE: Heizer sat at the kitchen table in his airstream trailer on the grounds of the museum. He was living there while he worked on the installation. He shuffled some geologist's renderings of the boulder as he talked. He preferred to confine the conversation to the rock itself.
HEIZER: You know, I'm not big on talking about art.
JAFFE: Maybe because then he can avoid answering questions like, why is this art? The 67-year-old Heizer has no patience for that kind of talk. He makes what's known as land art. His masterwork is a mile-and-a-half-long collection of mounds, berms and depressions called "City." It's in the Nevada desert near his home. He began working on it in the 1970s. It won't be done for a few more years. Until then, no visitors allowed. But "Levitated Mass" will not be so isolated, says museum director Michael Govan. It will be in the heart of the city.
GOVAN: In fact, the work will be freely accessible in the park. You won't even need an admissions ticket.
JAFFE: Though, Melissa, he does hope that visitors to "Levitated Mass" will be inspired to come inside the museum and see what's going on there.
BLOCK: Ina, I'm quite sure that I have no interest in walking underneath a 340-ton boulder. But if I were braver, could I do it? Is it open?
JAFFE: You could do it on Sunday along with the rest of the media and the general public. That's when it will be officially opened. As for getting over your fear of walking under the rock, they had to comply with a lot of seismic requirements. This is California. This is an earthquake zone.
BLOCK: OK. NPR's Ina Jaffe, thanks so much.
JAFFE: You're welcome.
BLOCK: We've been talking about a new work of art on the grounds of LACMA, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It's called "Levitated Mass" by artist Michael Heizer, and it's a massive boulder, more than 21 feet high. It's perched atop a trench for anyone curious to know what it's like to be beneath 340 tons of granite.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I AM A ROCK")
SIMON AND GARFUNKEL: (Singing) I am a rock. I am an island. Don't talk of love.