December 2014


Levitated Mass: Between a Rock and a Hard Place… to Reach


Shortly after a new work appeared on the grounds of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) in 2012 in the form of a 340 ton “rock,” I dropped by to have a look.

Through a long slot that was constructed to support that weight while allowing viewers to walk beneath it, in its perch, it does suggest a sort of delicate balance if not a “Levitated Mass” as it is so named. And in LA no less, where one’s thoughts are never far from the next earthquake.


Why is it there? How did it arrive? The answers are now revealed in a small documentary film, also entitled “Levitated Mass,” that I had the pleasure of seeing in its New York premier last month at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. It had played in its home town Los Angeles back in September, and will have appeared in nineteen cities when it completes its tour in Washington D.C. this coming March.

The project was the brainchild of a reclusive (and said to be misunderstood) artist Michael Heizer, who specializes in large-scale sculptures and earth art. However, his first attempt at it back in ‘69 failed when a crane attempting to lift a huge mass of granite snapped, sending the concept into a sort of deep freeze for 35 years.

It was not until 2005 when a blast at a California quarry produced (unintentionally) the appropriate boulder that Heizer, now at age 70, had originally imagined. And with the backing of LACMA’s enthusiastic champion of the work, director Michael Govan who raised $10 million from private donors, the project was resurrected and finally able to go forward. Govan saw this as a piece that could be a transformative signature moment for his museum, and now the trick was to get it there. And that is the focus of the film.

It took plenty for “Levitated Mass” to arrive. Literally. Ten nights of crawling in fact, on a 206 wheel trailer the size of a football field on a 105 mile journey from Riverside to LACMA.

Passing through 22 cities along the way, nervous mayors and officials had to be appeased and assured that there would be no damage, and that any altering of the landscape would be returned to its original state. Signs, traffic lights and phone lines had to be moved in some cases to allow for clear passage, and some roads too weak to bear such a load, would have to be avoided in favor of longer safer routes. So there was also that figurative mountain of red tape up which to roll this Sisyphusian stone.

But the trip itself took on a life of its own, and added a dimension to the project neither artist nor curator could have envisioned. In each city, the locals lined the streets in the middle of the night (some in pajamas) to have a look, while offering their wild and mixed reactions to this monolith passing through their lives at this ungodly hour. Everything from, “A rock? Ridiculous! A waste of money better spent, etc.” to some seeing a spirituality or divinity in it all. And lots of cell phone photos were taken by those now at one with their pet rock.

In total, in what I will oxymoronically call “benign audaciousness,” it is riveting. Creative obsessions often are. Especially when they result in that which is out of scale and/or out of context. Though the meaning of “Levitated Mass” remains in the eye and imagination of the beholder, as the film demonstrates. A trailer follows. Your mileage may vary.







Quote of the Month





In a context of the movie Interstellar which opened last month, that deals in black holes and other mysteries of the universe and our species place within it… and what with the Rosetta mission placing a small spacecraft on a comet speeding at 41,000 MPH 300 million miles away from earth…



"Science without religion is lame,
religion without science is blind."


                  —Albert Einstein, 1954




A quote that has been much parsed between those of a science and those of a religious bent, ever since.








Speaking of God, Apple’s CEO Comes Out



Given the speed of today’s news cycle, the fact that Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple— the most valuable company in the world— has come out, is old news. It happened way back this past October 30th via an open letter in Bloomberg Businessweek.


In reality, as one of the most open secrets in Silicon Valley and in the business community in general, it had been old news even long before that. He was after all named the most powerful gay person in 2013 by Out magazine.


The consensus in all quarters, was that Tim Cook was to be applauded for both his coming out and in the manner that he did. And it was recalled by many, that he had been publicly vocal about human rights in general, as evidenced in particular by a compelling speech he had made at the U.N. last December. Which I for one, had been unaware of until now.


Most thought there would be little if any fallout affecting Apple’s bottom line, though there could be some implications in overseas markets which do comprise a significant share of its business. And in a sidebar news item in this vein, ABC reported that “a giant iPhone monument was removed from a university campus in St Petersburg, Russia, possibly for fear that it went against Russia’s ban on homosexual propaganda to minors after Apple CEO Tim Cook came out as a gay man.”


But in all the commentary regarding what some view as a watershed moment, no one commented on his reference to God, which jumped out at me as being just as extraordinary and courageous these days as his reference to his sexuality:


“While I have never denied my sexuality, I haven’t publicly acknowledged it either, until now. So let me be clear: I’m proud to be gay, and I consider being gay among the greatest gifts God has given me.” (Italics, mine)


I would venture that in a science/high tech industry or business culture, more people have come out about their sexuality, than about their belief in a benevolent intrusive God who is a bestower of gifts.


This was a thoughtful line that Cook wrote and had time to consider as to how it would read on the page, and consciously put it in. As opposed to say a rather offhand colloquial expression believers and atheists alike might utter as in “I hope to God” or “there but for the grace of God go I etc.” I wondered how it could go unnoticed. I wondered how the talking heads, the columnists, the influential on line sites, could not help but comment on it.


Regardless of one’s personal religious beliefs or lack thereof—and even the pope is okay with that— it is rather extraordinary to hear the leader of a company like Apple, not only unabashedly and publicly espouse a belief in God, but a God who has given him a gift for which he is so grateful to have received. And we heard not a peep about it. Did it make people uncomfortable? Or were they that oblivious? How curious.









Three ducks on a lake                       
you and I on a park bench.
            Autumn is passing.


                —Joanna Migdal






Three New Inductees into the Toy Hall of Fame


Yes Virginia, there is a Toy Hall of Fame. And why shouldn’t there be? There are Halls of Fame for just about anything else imaginable, including one for the Polka, Burlesque, Mascots, American TV Game Shows and Robots—created by Carnegie Mellon Institute and including Hal 9000 who I would never have voted in after his horrid behavior in 2001: A Space Odyssey. These are just an unlikely few. And as the Insurance Hall of Fame must be absolutely riveting, I can’t wait to hop on a plane down to Alabama to take it all in. But I digress.


With the latest three entries into the toy HOF, which I will mention in a moment as I know the suspense must be almost unbearable if you didn’t see this news covered on Network TV, CNN, NPR, Wall St. Journal, Washington Post, USA Today among others, there now 56 members in the hall since its inception in 1998. Housed within the Strong National Museum of Play (named after Margaret Woodbury Strong, a prolific collector of everyday objects, especially dolls and toys) in downtown Rochester, toys are serious business as indicated on their website:


“The archival collections of The Strong’s Brian Sutton-Smith Library and Archives of Play chronicle the many facets of play. Among the holdings are personal papers, manuscripts, and other materials from play scholars and educators who have significantly advanced knowledge of the role of play in learning and human development and the ways in which it illuminates cultural history.”


And here we thought toys were just fun and games. And in order for a toy to make this hallowed hall, it must be nominated and then pass muster according to four quite stringent criteria:


1) Icon-status: that the toy is widely recognized, respected, and remembered.


2) Longevity: that the toy is more than a passing fad and has enjoyed popularity over multiple generations.


3) Discovery: that the toy fosters learning, creativity, or discovery through play.


4) Innovation: that the toy profoundly changed play or toy design. A toy may be inducted on the basis of this criterion without necessarily having met all of the first three.


Given the above, there should be no surprises concerning its eleven charter members listed here in alphabetical order.


And now without further ado, the 2014 inductees announced last month.


You could not find a more eclectic and incongruous mix to jointly enter the Hall than Rubik’s Cube, Soap Bubbles and Little Green Army Men. (Save of course for 2013 when both Chess and the Rubber Duck were inducted on the same ballot.).


To begin with, Rubik’s Cube should be in the Torture Hall of Fame. It is not a toy. I was already well into adulthood when it came on the scene 35 years ago. I couldn’t solve it then, and I can’t solve it now. And I’m not buying the book that reveals its solution either. I have suffered enough humiliation at the hands of this demonic and über-tangible cluster of 27 cubes, without resorting to such patronizing help. I’ve got my pride.


On the other hand, there are the benevolent and über-ethereal soap bubbles. That, I could do. But of course if one is unable to blow soap bubbles, one should check into a hospital immediately. And finally, there’s that bag of plastic soldiers fighting for truth justice and the American way.


War is hell. But not for them. And if you saw Toy Story and its sequels 2 and 3 (with number 4 scheduled for release in June 2017…mark your calendars), you know how lovable these little guys are. But already one can see the political incorrectness in the construct. Where are the Little Green Army Women? You know, the replicas of those serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. But as the Little Green Army Men are forever frozen in a WWII time warp, that would probably account for the gender bias here.


In my childhood, toy military figures, though also of World War vintage, were not plastic, not green and most certainly not made in China. My soldiers were macho men, made out of lead and colored by questionable alloyed paint. Yet miraculously, no one died of lead poisoning or suffered brain damage from the proximity to such toxicity. Though based on some rather strange behavior I witnessed in playmates, how do we know?


The war games I played with my men across the linoleum, usually involved trying to knock them over by shooting perfectly round Hazel nuts from between middle finger and thumb, when marbles were not at hand for use as devastating ammunition. Marbles? The last time I saw kids playing with marbles was on my trips to a Tijuana orphanage in the late “Aughts.” And I could not help but join in.


Beyond the nostalgia and fun of reminiscing about childhood pastimes, (though see the narrative poem to follow), and for this alone I applaud this HOF, I wonder if any conclusions can be drawn from the toys and games that we play? All learned papers on the subject aside. What role they serve in helping to shape us as we slouch toward adulthood?

Is a kid who used to blow soap bubbles less likely to blow up his school later on? I don’t know. But I used to play with cap guns and never would go on to buy a real gun nor try to really shoot anyone. But then again, if I were ever to come across Mats Valk from the Netherlands, who solved Rubik’s Cube at the Zonhoven Open in 2013 in a world record 5.5 seconds, who knows what I might do.






Trains: A Christmas Story



I can never remember whether it snowed
for six days and six nights when I was twelve
or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights
when I was six.


                               —Dylan Thomas


How badly he had wanted trains
for six years and counting,
but “Be the last kid on your block,”
seemed his bare bones fate decreed.


Nothing fancy just a five car set.
Just the workhorse grit of the locomotive
to race across the mind’s fruited plains
pulling the coal car loyally brimming


with fuel to stoke the engine heart.
Then gondola and box cars sharing the load;
the black sheep red caboose trailing—
all subject to a power surge at his command.


Through a winter village somewhere over a rainbow
this train might forever pass;
though a mother might knock down a signpost or two
in the errant sway of her terry cloth robe.


They might all be giants for two weeks each year
roaming a world set beneath their stocking feet
a gift to be viewed through a small window of time,
for it would mainly remain in the box in the trek


across the changing seasons.
No room in that flat for a layout of track
the whole year round.
                                   How a family had
such little space and even less money.


To know how badly he had wanted trains
you would have had to have sat in the dark
that one Christmas Eve and waited
with the others in a room that faced the back alley—


blacker than Lucifer’s heart, except
for one tiny light
          a beacon in motion
                    punching a hole in all expectations
                              working the floor in ovular fashion
                                        an unmistakable path of passion
                                                  the scaled down thunder of electric trains!


Suddenly drowned out by a frenzy of voices:
“Surprise! Merry Christmas!” And he started with a cry
that gave way shortly to sobbing;
these could not possibly be his trains.


Somehow a sinister switch of track
from his best friend’s place upstairs—
A trick of time and space and other dimension?


No, his trains from an eternity had finally arrived
and in the presence of this multi-headed
monster Witness no less,
now visible as someone has turned on the lights.


A moment of the best of intentions derailed
all look down as though to consider
the state of their shoes;
the boy and beacon lost in the transformation.


                                        —Ron Vazzano






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