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'Levitated Mass': Filmmaker Doug Pray's doc follows the journey of LACMA's rock

Michael Heizer's finished artwork at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Michael Heizer's finished artwork at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Doug Pray
Michael Heizer's finished artwork at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Crowds lined the streets at all hours of the day and night to get a glimpse of the caravan that carried the boulder from Riverside to Los Angeles.
Doug Pray
Michael Heizer's finished artwork at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Artist Michael Heizer as his "Levitated Mass" was being installed at LACMA.
Doug Pray
Michael Heizer's finished artwork at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
The Frame's John Horn, right, with director Doug Pray under the subject of his documentary, "Levitated Mass."
James Kim/KPCC
Michael Heizer's finished artwork at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Under "Levitated Mass" at LACMA.
James Kim/KPCC

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Most people who walk under Levitated Mass at LACMA fear it might crush them. But Doug Pray — director of Levitated Mass: The Story of Michael Heizer's Monolithic Sculpture — says it's the best way to see the artwork, which is why we interviewed him about his documentary underneath the massive boulder. 

The Heizer piece consists of a 340-ton rock perched — seemingly precariously — on two bars above a steeply inclined slot carved into the earth. Pray documented the rock's journey from a quarry in Riverside to LACMA — a slow trek that took more than a week and half as it crossed four counties and 22 cities.


The documentary took two years to make.  We spoke with Doug Pray about the journey, what defines art, and how this rock is setting a precedent in the thriving Los Angeles art scene. 

Interview Highlights: 

How Pray feels when he's standing under Levitated Mass: 

Actually, I've never really felt fear or dread. I just like the fact that when you stand under it — the lines of this walkway, this slot — that to me, if not half the sculpture, is almost most of it. The rock is like the centerpiece, but the fact that those lines are so sharp against the blue sky, they just come flying up against it. I just think it's actually really cool to sit under here and just look at the angles. This is kind of where it feels like art to me. Like, I'm inside an architectural design with this big huge ... like, how often do you see the bottom of a boulder? Never! 

Pray on how the public's reaction to the rock formed his definition of art: 

We do project everything from ourselves onto a piece of art. And so, for some people, if they're kind of politically minded, then the art is a political problem: "That's a waste of money that could be used towards jobs." Or there's a woman in Carson who is just convinced that this mountain was moved by God because it [stopped] right at The Rock of Salvation Church. I love that malleability of what this thing is.

What Pray was feeling when the Levitated Mass trailer broke down on its journey to LACMA:

Just beyond excited and happy. Thrilled! No, I always joke with my friends: "You know, deep inside, of course, I was secretly wishing that the rock would just roll right off that rig and just crush three buildings." I didn't want anybody to be injured, but I'm a filmmaker. Of course I wanted a big huge story! 

Pray on his decision to end the film at the unveiling at LACMA:

I actually like the fact that the film is not really about the sculpture. It's not about the public's perception of the art. I sort of stopped just short of that. I could have added a whole 'nother chapter of like, "Well, how'd it go? What were the reviews? What did people think about the art?" But that was a very conscious decision. ... The moment it becomes L.A.'s — it's no longer in the possession of the artist or, you could even argue, the museum. That's where the movie ends. 

What the rock means to Pray: 

For me, it's loaded. I mean, it means a couple years of my life, and it means a lot to me in terms of L.A. and how I see the city. I do believe that what LACMA's doing and what's happening in the arts community in Los Angeles is actually really fundamental. And I heard this the other day —  that there's more artists in L.A. working now than in any other time and any other city in history. I don't know if that's true, it certainly could be. And I look at this as sort of the centerpiece for that concept, that L.A. is a very arts-friendly city, and this points to the future. This is not a New York piece of art. It's not a Berlin piece of art. It's very L.A., it's very Riverside, it's very Southern California — and I think that's something to celebrate. 

Doug Pray’s documentary, "Levitated Mass: The Story of Michael Heizer's Monolithic Sculpture" opened Sept. 5 at the Nuart Theater in Los Angeles

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