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Chris Burden: Extreme Measures at the New Museum, the Los Angeles-based artist’s first major museum exhibition in the United States in twenty-five years and his first solo museum show in New York, is a boy’s dream come true. Organized by Lisa Phillips with Massimiliano Gioni and Jenny Moore, the show presents a grown-up man playing with toys. The difference is that, this time around, Burden’s adolescent universe gets a big injection of money, engineering, and industriousness. Even if the exhibition does not directly address issues of gender, the male-oriented sensibility is felt all over. Everything is presented in a large-scale format, including a motorcycle, a sports car, a pickup truck, model bridges, 625 miniature cardboard submarines, police uniforms tailored for bigger-than-life-size people, a meteorite, four million dollars’ worth of solid gold bars, and functional antique cannons.
Timidly shown on the fifth floor of the New Museum is the documentation of the artist’s radical early performance pieces, seen through photographs and videos. These recorded materials present Burden’s most iconic and canonical body-based artworks, such as Shoot (1971), in which the young artist had a friend shoot him in the arm with a .22-caliber rifle from a distance of about fifteen feet; Trans-Fixed (1974), in which Burden had himself crucified on the hood of a Volkswagen Beetle; and Five Day Locker Piece (1971), in which the artist lived in a school locker for five days with a bottle of drinking water and a waste receptacle.
If the viewer is not on the lookout for these early works, she or he might miss them altogether. Yet they are critical for understanding the development of Burden’s career. There is a strong thread connecting the young artist who became internationally acclaimed for using his own body as his medium in early performances in the 1970s and this mid-career artist showing an industrious, architecturally scaled body of work. A sense of danger, violence, and masculinity carries through.
Porsche with Meteorite (2013) consists of a restored 1974 sports car suspended from one end of a steel seesaw; it is balanced on the other end by a chunk of meteorite. The piece is an alpha version of Alexander Calder’s mobiles. It uses a substantial knowledge of physics and engineering to perfectly balance the real car and the little meteorite, juxtaposing disparate objects that are totally foreign to each other in terms of materials and scale. The most crowd-pleasing installation is The Big Wheel (1979), in which an eight-foot, three-ton, rusty cast-iron flywheel is set in motion by the rear tire of a small 1968 Benelli motorcycle mounted on a wooden platform. When a gallery assistant revs the motorcycle’s engine, the flywheel starts spinning, first slowly, then gaining great speed. The Big Wheel is a direct reference (and probably homage) to Marcel Duchamp’s first readymade, Bicycle Wheel (1913); Burden has updated Duchamp for the late capitalist era. If Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel, craftily mounted on a kitchen stool, could only suggest notions of spinning and movement, Burden’s version is a high-speed machine that creates a theatrical spectacle. This is a forceful performative installation without any need for the artist’s presence.
Besides a motorcycle and sports car, viewers also encounter a 1964 Ford crane truck with a one-ton weight suspended from an apparatus mounted on the vehicle’s flatbed. Because of its heavy mass, One Ton Crane Truck (2009) is shown on the ground floor of the museum. But Burden is not only attached to male trophies such as boats, vintage cars, motorcycles, and big trucks; unsurprisingly, money also plays a role in his alpha universe. On multiple visits a line formed inside the exhibition, where only one visitor at a time, after checking coat and bags in a locker, was allowed to peek at Tower of Power (1985). It consists of one hundred kilograms of gold ingots protected around the clock by a real security guard, who informs the visitor that the installation is worth four million dollars in gold. The bars are stacked in a small pyramid and encased inside a glass vitrine. Tiny figures made of matchsticks and sewing needles surround the golden tower, evoking capitalist worshippers.
Security is present in the exhibition both physically, to protect the private property, and metaphorically, to evoke racial abuse and violence. L.A.P.D. Uniforms (1993) offers a lineup of Los Angeles police uniforms measuring over seven feet tall, made in the wake of the Rodney King beating and subsequent police trial. This is the most overtly political piece in the exhibition, impressive in scale but lacking subtlety in its conception. Also evoking violence is Beam Drop (1984, 2008, 2009). Shown through video documentation, it consists of sixty I-beams of various lengths dropped from a height of forty-five meters by a construction crane into a three-meter-deep wet concrete pit. (This work has been executed three times: in Lewiston, New York, in 1984; Inhotim contemporary art center, Brazil, in 2008; and Antwerp, Belgium, in 2009.) The metal rods are carefully raised one by one into the air and then released, creating a spectacular free fall into the pit. They crash into each other, producing a mesmerizing hard impact, and their strong physicality gives them a highly performative quality. Even with its masculine associations and evocative connections to Abstract Expressionism—think of gestural paintings and Jackson Pollock’s spilling and splattering—this piece also carries a powerful sense of danger and vulnerability. The work is partly controlled by the artist, but it still leaves space for the randomness of the free fall, creating an element of surprise and awe. It recalls Burden’s early performances, which raised questions of risk and susceptibility, though there is a major shift here from the artist’s vulnerable, exposed body to the heavy materiality of the beams splashing in concrete.
Of course, this male world would not be complete without the bellicose theme of war. A Tale of Two Cities (1981) consists of a one-thousand-square-foot sand-based diorama—a topographic playground made of a myriad of pieces. It is an obsessive exercise in accumulation and arrangement, displaying miniature mountain ranges, house-plant jungles, city walls, an impressive arsenal of over five thousand toy tanks, airplanes, guns, artillery, horses, and tiny action figures such as medieval knights. It remains unclear if the installation is a glorification of current children’s popular war games or a condemnation of the brutality of actual war. Similarly ambiguous is the massive Pair of Namur Mortars (2013) made out of bronze, wood, iron, steel, and stone. This sculptural installation is a re-creation of a pair of large seventeenth-century mortars, which could shoot eighteen-inch-wide stone cannonballs. It evokes the devastating power of objects of destruction, but also somehow praises their ingenuity.
Building things up and tearing them apart is a theme that permeates the exhibition. Contrasting with the warlike dangerous sculpture are intriguingly intricate and delicate installations made out of small pieces (such as A Tale of Two Cities). Burden assembles monumental models of bridges and cities, revealing his interest in engineering and design. Over the past decade, he has produced a number of these built from stainless steel parts, which are based on pieces from children’s construction kits. Among the works on display at the New Museum are three bridges: Mexican Bridge (1998), using metal toy construction parts; Three Arch Dry Stack Bridge, 1/4 Scale (2013), in which the cinderblock structure is held up without mortar by the force of gravity alone; and the fifty-nine-foot-long cantilevered Triple 21 Foot Truss Bridge (2013). They are among the most elegant sculptures in the exhibition. In the exhibition catalogue, these refined bridges are astutely described by art historian Amelia Jones in her essay “Chris Burden’s Bridges, Relationality, and the Conceptual Body” as a metaphor for the way Burden was interested in building social relationships with his audience in his early performances. According to Jones, this was done through the vulnerability of Burden’s body, similar to artists from the 1970s such as Valie Export, Yoko Ono, Vito Acconci, and others. Despite the evident effort in the exhibition catalogue to address Burden’s most recent works, most of the essays, including the one by Jones, begin or end up highlighting and focusing the discussion heavily on Burden’s early performances from the 1970s, especially Shoot. It seems to be an almost impossible task to venture a different approach.
Also beautifully installed in the exhibition is All the Submarines of the United States of America (1987), in which 625 miniature cardboard submarines are suspended from the ceiling, each one representing an actual submarine launched by the U.S. Navy from the 1890s through the late 1980s. Together, they create a whimsical dangling structure in the air. Within this heavy, Toyland universe there are hints of dreaming, playfulness, and fun. The exhibition is not entirely about power and destruction, although the overwhelming feeling is that after so many years of feminist struggle in the art world, a highly lauded all-boys club continues to dominate.
Assistant Professor, Department of Art and Music and Macaulay Honors Program, John Jay College of Criminal Justice
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