BY David Reisman in Reviews | 05 MAR 14
Featured in
Issue 161

Chris Burden

BY David Reisman in Reviews | 05 MAR 14

New Museum facade, with Chris Burden’s Twin Quasi Legal Skyscrapers, 2013, and Ghost Ship, 2005

When I first learned about Chris Burden’s 1970s performances – being nailed to the back of a Volkswagen, getting shot in the shoulder, crawling through broken glass with his hands tied behind his back, risking electrocution in a gallery – I thought of writing an essay about him called ‘Ouch! as Art’. At that time, Burden had a reputation as the Evel Knievel of the art world; his risk-taking seemed to border on insanity. Since then, though, Burden has shifted his focus from putting himself in what he called ‘aberrant situations’ to realizing an ambitious range of sculptures, installations and other projects, with a similar go-for-broke intensity that manages to be simultaneously eccentric and objective. His retrospective at the New Museum, ‘Extreme Measures’, showed that a willingness to go to extremes has been a common thread throughout his career.

Burden’s subjects include questions of vulnerability, defence, violence and survival; his materials range from trucks, cars, motorcycles and boats, to meteors, girders and toys. While some artists – from Picasso and Jean Dubuffet to Claes Oldenberg – were inspired by the unschooled, visceral style of children’s art, Burden draws from the conceptual side of children’s creativity, though with an adult’s education and resources. Most of his sculptures are carefully planned and assembled from manufactured elements or kits, existing on a plane beyond what even the most ambitious kid might dream of. Outside the New Museum, the first things that visitors saw were two recent pieces demonstrating Burden’s interest in engineering, weight and balance. Installed on the roof of the building, Twin Quasi Legal Skyscrapers (2013) was a temporary construction of aluminium tubing, while Ghost Ship (2005) is a nine-metre-long self-navigating boat designed to sail unmanned on the North Sea. It hung from the side of the museum like a lifeboat, as if ready for the next big flood to hit New York City, while Twin Quasi Legal Skyscrapers seemed a skeletal evocation of the twin towers of the World Trade Center, using the museum as a monumental plinth.

Burden’s retrospective began with documentation of his early investigations of self-mortification, danger and pain. He created art works that were hard to turn into commodities and which existed only briefly (from a few minutes to a couple of weeks). Here, Burden discussed Shoot (1971) for a programme broadcast on BBC World Service in 2012, which was played alongside a display of monographs and a video compilation featuring his disarmingly straightforward commentaries. The low-budget, guerilla-like documentation of his early pieces captures something of the danger and possibility of Vietnam-era America, of being at the edge of disaster and radical change. His performances were also at the end of the line for a linear way of thinking about art history, the reductive emptying out of everything that was ‘not art’ in painting and sculpture. Burden’s work is never repetitive – having himself shot once was enough. His early performances challenge whoever is paying attention to think about how far it’s possible to take the idea of art as inquiry, as well as ideas about creative self-sacrifice, empathy and indifference.

The Big Wheel (1979) represented a new direction for Burden. Made by connecting a 1968 Benelli motorcycle to a large cast-iron flywheel, it was the first piece at the New Museum show in which the artist completely removed all references to himself. After the motorcycle reaches its maximum speed, it’s pulled away, and the flywheel revolves at 200 RPM for more than two hours. In recent years, Burden has made several other pieces involving vehicles, such as Porsche with Meteorite (2013), in which he created a see-saw balancing a 136-kilo meteorite against a much heavier 1974 Porsche 914. 1-Ton Crane Truck (2009) also involves a balance of power, with a restored 1964 Ford crane truck holding a cast-iron weight, oxidized in orange to match the colour of the truck’s cab.

For his Beam Drop pieces (various dates and locations beginning in 1984), Burden orchestrates the creation of huge ‘anti-architecture’ outdoor installations by having workers drop steel I-beams from a crane into a pool of wet cement, their chance arrangement reminiscent of the aftermath of an explosion. Tower of Power (1985) is a vitrine containing a tidy pile of 100 one-kilo gold bricks surrounded by matchstick men – visitors to the show could only view the work one at a time. Beehive Bunker (2006) comprises a stack of cement bags that could theoretically hold two people inside, topped by a manhole cover that wasn’t easily seen from the outside – a sort of post-Pop igloo for self-defence. Burden’s group of bridge sculptures, including Mexican Bridge (1998), Three Arch Dry Stack Bridge 1/4 Scale and Triple 21 Foot Truss Bridge (both 2013) show a beautiful and fanatical attention to detail, while Tyne Bridge Kit (2002), a cabinet including more than 100,000 Meccano construction pieces and instructions, is a kind of meta-toy/art object: for Burden, it represents the bridge sculpture in condensed form.

These contrasted with his installations using children’s toys or toy-like objects that reflect upon the adult world’s preparations for warfare. A Tale of Two Cities (1981) is a complex installation that includes more than 5,000 war toys from the US, Japan and Europe, organized as a tableau of two city-states. Set up on sand, suggesting both oceans and deserts, and surrounded by houseplants, it can be viewed in detail with binoculars provided by the museum. All the Submarines of the United States of America (1987) consists of 625 tiny cardboard submarines suspended from the ceiling, with the names of the submarines listed on the wall behind them, each one representing real submarines launched by the US Navy since 1897. L.A.P.D. Uniforms (1993) is an installation of 30 police uniforms that include handcuffs, batons, badges and Beretta handguns. Rather than celebrating state power or having straightforward antiwar messages, the works show both the attraction of toy weapons and the disturbing relationship between make-believe and real violence.

Although Burden’s work has become more object-orientated – as ambitious in its own way as Richard Serra’s enormous steel sculptures – he remains subversive. This retrospective showed the intense artistic commitment and focus required to achieve results that are this far-out.