in Features | 05 SEP 96
Featured in
Issue 28

Survival Kit

The Chris Burden retrospective at the MAK, Vienna

in Features | 05 SEP 96

As you enter the building, a suspiciously loud click is heard from a device connected to the turnstile. Called Samson (1985) the machine is the first work in Chris Burden's retrospective, and one which leaves little doubt about his attitude to museums. Connected to the turnstile, a gearbox makes a hundred-ton jack expand a little with every new arrival, ramming two huge pieces of timber more tightly against the walls. The more people who attend the exhibition during its six-month run, the greater the probability of the destruction of the building.

Violence, real or threatened, has been a major concern for Burden. His early body-works reflected a sadomasochistic tendency. Deliberately being shot in 1971 in a gallery in California, then in Back to You a year later having drawing-pins pushed into his upper body while he sat shirtless in an elevator; deliberately falling off a chair later the same year in Sculpture in Three Parts; setting fire to himself in Dreamy Nights in 1974; risking electrocution in Doorway to Heaven a year later, by short-circuiting two electric cables by thrusting them into his chest, and again in Prelude to 220 or 110 in 1971; a year later courting disaster in Deadman, for which he covered himself with a tarpaulin and lay on a Los Angeles freeway... These flirtations with danger were to be understood neither in personal terms, nor as entertainment, but instead as exercises in what art could be. Other artists made dangerous performances: Dennis Oppenheim had rocks thrown at his body and on another occasion lay on the floor while a tarantula crawled towards him; Vito Acconci stood blindfold at the end of a pier at night, waiting to see what happened... In comparison, Burden's works seemed more sudden and exact, with fewer sexual or psychological overtones. They resembled demonstrations: lucid, matter-of-fact, describable, uncluttered events, and the clarity which became a hallmark of his style served only to heighten the impact. Most shocking, perhaps, was the artist's detached attitude to his own body and his constant need to test its resilience.

All of these self-inflicted threats demanded a level of passivity which approached that of traditional martyrdom. Indeed, in Trans-Fixed (1974) in Venice, California, Burden was exhibited shirtless, nailed face-up to the top of a car in a parodic crucifixion. It sounds destructive, but as with all masochistic practises, some transfer of energy was involved; pain was reversed and welcomed, threats were undone, ignored or relegated to other planes. From February 18 to March 10, 1972, when Burden performed his Bed Piece, all he asked for was a bed. At the opening he undressed, climbed into it and did not speak for the 22 days. (The gallery-owner decided to provide him with food, water and toilet facilities.) The results were unexpected. 'Within the plain walls of the gallery,' wrote one commentator, 'A cumulative lethargy bordering on an ecstatic death-wish transmitted an energetic tension so palpable that it forced Robert Irwin to leave his studio next door'. In White Light/White Heat (1974) at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York, Burden took this idea to its limit by constructing a triangular ledge in a corner near the ceiling, nine feet off the ground. Here he stayed, fasting and silent, again for 22 days, out of sight of viewers. But perhaps all these works were no more than variations on Burden's Five-Day Locker Piece (1971), usually cited as his first performance, and definitely a prototype. For this, he crouched for five days inside a locker two feet high, two feet wide and three feet deep, with a five-gallon bottle of water in a locker above him and an empty bottle the same size in the locker below, the overtones resembling a combination of Franz Kafka's 'Hunger Artist' and the interim period after the crucifixion, before Christ rose from the tomb. Though there was nothing to see, visitors could not stay away.

One thing is clear. The vigils he kept at this time served as an example of self-control derived from a contemplative state of mind and a studied conservation of energy. In terms of the period - a time of increasing consumption which reached breaking-point in the 80s - its significance is clear. Burden's examinations of the power of the individual represent not only a critique of the status quo but also a re-examination of the possibilities of the individual. Perfecting an initial plan based on charisma and physical presence had been a tactic from the first. (For You'll Never See My Face in Kansas City, 1971, he visited Kansas, Missouri, sat behind a panel which covered his face, then for the remainder of his stay kept his features hidden except for his nose and mouth.) By means of such alienating techniques - nakedness being another - energy was conserved, and the individual was reinvested with a power: not a physical power but instead a representative one coupled with a shamanic ability to intercede for others. Like Beuys, Burden was a lawbreaker as well as a shape-changer. Not surprisingly, he had begun by asserting his right to control his own destiny - with his pistol shots directed at a Boeing 747 in Los Angeles in 1973 - and by revealing simultaneous disgust for and fascination with simplistic self-help systems. ('Today I am going to breathe water', he explained in his video Velvet Water in 1974, 'Which is the opposite of drowning, because when you breathe water, you believe water to be richer, thicker oxygen capable of sustaining life'. After five minutes he collapsed, choking.) In a way which was both ludicrous and touching, he decided not to be bound by conventional wisdom and to mistrust everything except his own experience.

In other words, to believe in miracles. At the top of the stairs, a vast room with a concrete floor contains a strange piece of apparatus. A pivot in the middle of the room supports on one end a huge pile of concrete blocks and on the other a 12-ton steamroller. At regular intervals throughout the day an assistant drives the steamroller in a circle until it reaches maximum speed. At this point, the counterweight shifts and the machine is lifted into the air. It 'flies' for some minutes until the counter-balance returns to the central point and the steamroller returns to earth amid loud applause. Mooted in 1991 but realised only now, The Flying Steamroller could be regarded as a variation on another piece from 1979 called The Big Wheel: a three ton flywheel mounted vertically next to a motor cycle. Once the wheels of the stationary cycle are rotating, the driver moves backwards, applying his back wheel to the much larger cast-iron one, which reaches 220 r.p.m. then is left to revolve silently in the gallery, an object of wonder. And beauty; asked what constituted a work of art, Burden gave an unexpected reply: that primarily, it could be an object of use. 'There's a beauty in a suspension bridge that is an aesthetic beauty,' he wrote. Despite this conviction, or even because of it, he moved into an area in which the work of art remained close to its genesis in plans and drawings: in other words, close to the prototype. So in the same gallery a Flying Kayak (1982) hangs, big enough to clamber into and 'fly', buffeted by wind machines. The same 'prototype' category would also include Burden's B-Car (1975) a single-passenger vehicle, with four bicycle wheels but resembling a plane which would travel 100 miles per hour and 100 miles per gallon - or his reconstruction of John Logie Baird's first television, 'to aid people in understanding this complex instrument', Burden explains.

Demystification is not Burden's aim; rather, it is to focus on the real mysteries that inventions have tried to solve. A survivor's mentality underlies such works, but the very idea of rebuilding machines - or, more importantly, of being able to make them oneself, also arises from a crisis mentality: the idea that civilisation is at the end of its tether, that specialisation has run rampant and that radical simplification may be our only hope. Perhaps the key work of this period is Survival Kit of 1979, containing a radio, a mirror, a candle, a $100 bill, a saw, fishing equipment, a cigarette... Such a Robinson Crusoe mentality marks the second stage of a process of empowerment, as Burden sees it; knowledge, particularly practical knowledge, can save a life. Perhaps an ecological programme lies behind this. But first comes a revision of the idea of what civilisation might mean. Two works in particular offer a glimpse of urban hell: Medusa's Head (1990), not included in the exhibition in Vienna, is a rough sphere 14 feet in diameter, made of rocks, concrete, steel and covered with model trains, a glimpse of dystopia as petrifying as the Medusa's gaze itself. For every dystopia there is a utopia, however; under construction since 1991, Pizza City is a wedge-shaped slice of an ideal place to live, arranged on 20 table-tops. Like any daydream brought down to earth, it has an air of abiding sadness. (For 'As if...', read 'If only...') Increasingly, as Burden's work has become more politically outspoken, the significance of the body in his early work has become clear. Personal empowerment and the ability to survive are his preoccupations, his abiding theme the first-person singular, fighting against almost impossible odds.

But first the single figure has to be located. In the entrance hall is a scale model of the Solar System, with the Sun in the centre and the position of the planets around it, correctly scaled so that while Mercury and Venus are also in the entrance hall, Uranus is in the American Bar in the Seitenstettegasse, Neptune in a jewellers' shop in the Kohlmarkt and Pluto in the Secession building in the Friedrichstrasse. Well, perhaps it is possible to comprehend such vast distances or such powerful forces. One way of demonstrating that there is a chance of doing so is to suggest the powers of the universe as toys or games: miniaturised, manoeuvrable, unreal. In Burden's imagination all the ships of the US Navy can be suspended in space like toys, which in this case is exactly what they have become. Utopia can be represented on a table-top (Pizza City) as can a war (in A Tale of Two Cities 1981, employing 5,000 war toys). A thin line separates satire from seriousness in his Boys' Own version of great truths. Power, in a work called Tower of Power (1985), was represented by 100 one-kilo pure gold bricks arranged in a pile on a marble base, with matchstick men looking up at it in wonder, the value of the gold being $1,000,000. Destruction was represented by All the Submarines of the United States of America (1987): 650 of them, each eight inches long, dangling from threads as if they were weightless. In 1991-2, Burden worked on memorials: The Other Vietnam Memorial (1991), twelve enormous copper plates, hinged so they can be turned, and etched into the plates the names of the three million South Vietnamese killed during the involvement of the United States in the Vietnamese Civil War. Increasingly, it seems, Burden was revising the image of the United States, particularly abroad. One plan for France was the Mini Video Circus, three Citroën trucks, in the back of each of which are four video screens and a tent in which to sit and enjoy California disaster footage. 'Unlike Eurodisney,' he wrote, ' I believe these mini video circuses, with the never-ending California disaster footage, would be extremely popular and successful. Nothing makes people feel better than seeing disaster fall upon a rich and excessive society in a distant place.'

Apocalypticism and power coalesce in Burden's personal vision of the United States. Across a wall behind the Mini Video Circus, a series of scaled-up Los Angeles police uniforms is displayed, complete with belts, badges, holsters, night-sticks, bullets and berrettas, terrifying but pointless given the footage of earthquakes, looting and arson on show only yards away, where wanton destruction of both the natural and the man-made is reduced to mobile wallpaper. By this time too, the interrelation of Burden's works and even what we imagine to be his feeling about them has come to seem poignant and flippant by turns. In retrospect, it seems, his performances were not only rehearsals for the worst that is yet to come but also a recipe for coping with any eventuality. Simple devices will be necessary, and a view of an entire world, not a random selection of the most powerful countries. Use of existing facilities is crucial. (One of Burden's plans was to convey the entire exhibition by water from America to Vienna.) Simple knowledge of radio and television is also important - remember, Burden has single-handedly remade Logie Baird's prototype television. Seen in this light, the early body-works seem logical preparations for the impending horror. Patience, meditation or simply the ability to endure will be crucial, while first-hand experience of starvation and torture may certainly prove beneficial. Simply staying alive without making demands may be the point of the achievement.

For the problem of withstanding pain or discomfort, whether real or perceived, has been crucial to Burden's work, as has the process of countering such states by endurance. How to meet or combat force is another problem. The early body-works do neither. Rather, they exist as images or expressed feelings, with simple visual concomitants. It is obvious that they were performed in order to develop certain capacities: persistence, bravery, relaxation (or alternatively 'abstinence, concealment and terror'), but perhaps the main freedom for which Burden has been searching is one of definition. In his work, easily recognised images, artefacts or states of mind turn out to be quite different, but definition is as important to Burden as to any Conceptualist. In 1988 at the Temporary Contemporary site of Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art, he excavated the foundations in order to show visitors exactly where the museum, and therefore any definition of its contents, started and stopped. And back in Vienna, in the museum's entrance hall, two works of measurement remain. One is the plan of the universe, the other a record of the number of visitors needed to reduce the building to rubble.