“Anything Becomes a Part of Where It Is if You Take It and Put It There”: William Stobb, Michael Heizer, and Articulated Absences
The only way out: create
objects that float. The size of a spirit remembered in land.
It wasn’t big enough. I kept working.
Today at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, a four hundred and fifty six foot trench cuts across the north lawn. Directly over the deepest portion of the granite channel, a three hundred and forty ton boulder rests on two shelves bolted to the inside of the trench, allowing visitors to walk beneath the massive rock. Levitated Mass is artist Michael Heizer’s most recent earthworks sculpture—an idea conceived decades ago and attempted once before, but the boulder was so heavy that it caused the lifting crane to snap.
Recently I visited the site to traverse the channel and take photos of the megalith. Standing just below the rock, the surrounding landscape disappears from view. For a moment, it’s only me and a few other visitors, the boulder, and a vast blue sky. The feeling is initially awe—have I ever stared at the underbelly of a displaced monolith situated in a city of millions? I experience both ecstatic emptiness and the logical impossibility that this monumental boulder is somehow buoyed overhead. Or, in Heizer’s words via the poetry of William Stobb, it’s “Physical truth in isolation / of material from source…Size is real.”
In some of the poems from his recent collection Absentia, Stobb excavates, compiles, erases, and levitates Heizer’s words:
As my ideas developed I defied gravity. Without trying.
Obviously pointed at the future, all it is is
These poems were built by removing language from interviews conducted with Heizer and then relocating them within a new context. The work seems accreted rather than composed. Lines are sometimes bulky and dense; the weight of the text pushes across the page to form striations in the white space:
forms of evidence interest me—beautiful gravel, broken processional.
Visualize the voids combining—if you can, then you understand.
Complete the cycle—tame something wild a rough wild rock might
fall at the base of a cliff. Articulate that.
Heizer is perhaps best known for Double Negative, an earthwork comprised of two trenches fifty feet deep and one thousand and five hundred feet long, cut along both sides of a natural canyon at the Mormon Mesa in Nevada. Double Negative asks viewers to contemplate art outside museum walls where the act of creation is subtraction, an erasure. This sculpture is essentially the displacement of two hundred and forty thousand tons of rock, considered as both the act of removal and the negative space left inside the existing canyon and man-made rifts. “Anything physical becomes a statement / about absence.”
Stobb’s use of Heizer’s “negative vocabulary” also plays a part in the tradition of erasure poetry—mining a text to reveal another narrative, creating space for new interpretations that question the ownership or authority of the original text. Within these particular poems, Stobb seems to be reaching to “feel that something has transcended,” an out-of-body experience, erasure of self.
A similar “vanishing act” occurs in other poems in the collection such as “Holiday,” “Up Kingston,” and “Absentia,” where entire poems are contained within quotation marks. These quoted poems aren’t lifted from Heizer’s language, but are instead run-on monologues, like dreams retold from memory. Here Stobb continues to negate the “I,” making it unclear who the speaker is and who is being spoken to. Heizer: “There is nothing there, but it is still a sculpture.” By erasing, we always leave something behind.
Performance artist, musician, and sculptor Laurie Anderson says: “Emptiness to me is expansive. And I don’t have to be there. I can’t exist in it.” Stobb knows this emptiness, a vastness internalized. He is a poet of the desert. Just as Heizer’s work not only references the western landscape, but is made up of and by that landscape, Stobb takes the “inundated or eroded, extended or developed” language and repositions it into lyric. The relocation of a three hundred and forty ton boulder. Size is real.
Just lay out flat and wait.
Some dormant electrical pattern mistriggers,
circles inward like birds. Light-blind
and immersive as in the channel.
I won’t want to forget this and then I won’t
be able to.
William Stobb:: Absentia:: Penguin Books