From certain vantage points in lower Manhattan, a subtle addition to the skyline is visible atop the New Museum on the Bowery. These forms are the sculptural work of Los Angeles based artist, Chris Burden, who has titled his intervention Two Small Skyscrapers (Quasi Legal Skyscrapers) (2003/2013). The open frame steel towers from a distance resemble the familiar and constant presence of vertical construction, but like their title, also evoke the former World Trade Center. That is to say the work seems to be perverse monument to large-scale urban development, and simultaneously a reminder of our collective post-9/11 consciousness.
Burden, who came to art world prominence in the 1970s for his performances, has for the past few decades worked primarily within the realm of sculptural installation. His retrospective at the New Museum titled, “Chris Burden: Extreme Measures,” is his first New York survey, and most comprehensive exhibition in the U.S. in 25 years.
The show is organized so that Burden’s earliest works are viewable on the top floor of the Museum in an area that is typically allocated for outreach, education, and special projects. The room is arranged with four small tables. Atop each is a binder that contains the very limited documentation of his early performances as well as his own typewritten descriptions of each event. His descriptive style is consistent with American Conceptualism, that is to say, it is written in a pseudo-objective, or quasi-scientific fashion, and accompanies reproductions of black and white photographs taken while he performed. In one work, titled, I became a Secret Hippy (October 3, 1971), Burden writes,
“The piece began when I took off my clothes, jeans and a t-shirt, and lay on the floor on my back. A friend hammered a star shaped stud into my sternum. I then sat in a chair and had all my hair cut off. Finally I dressed in some F.B.I. clothes I had bought for the piece.”
I spent nearly an hour reading each of his summaries while examining the iconic photographs, contemplating the repeated endurances and abuses that Burden imposed on himself, his small audiences, and the institutions who were complicit in his existential experiments.
One of his most iconic performances, Shoot, also from 1971, consisted of the artist being shot in the arm at close range by a friend with a rifle. Burden remarked of the experience, while referring to the infinitesimal duration during which the bullet was inside his arm: “For that moment, I was a sculpture.” In other works, Burden would construct scenarios where he, the artist, or rather his body was conspicuously absent, like the 1971 piece, Disappearing, or 1973’s B.C. Mexico at the Los Angeles gallery Newspace, where inside the gallery he posted a placard noting his absence from the exhibition. During that time, Burden allegedly paddled to a remote beach unobserved, and subsisted for eleven days. Upon his return he read from a diary he kept of his experiences, and screened a short film of himself embarking on his journey. Later in 1975, for White Light/White Heat, Burden constructed a triangular shelf in the corner of his New York gallery large enough that he could lie in repose for the 22 concurrent days of the exhibition and remain unseen by visitors below. His status as a sculpture in Shoot, and as an artist or subject in later absent-works evidence a profoundly contingent and often unverifiable transience that defies any simple interpretation of meaning.
Strangely, although the expansive space of the New Museum is dwarfed by Burden’s enormous, and enormously heavy works, these small binders that contain the record of his performances become equally monumental, and perhaps more so than the literal sculptures on the floors below. And moreover they prime the viewer with a set of experiences and propositional logic that inform an understanding of his installations as not static objects, but as relational models, or models of relations, between the body and the built environment.
One of his early sculptural works, The Big Wheel (1979) consists of a 6,000-pound cast iron fly wheel that is activated by a fixed motorcycle when it’s rear wheel makes contact with its massive metal hub, accelerating it to nearly 200 revolutions per second. The sound of the motorcycle and the hypnotic rotation of the flywheel fill the entire space with a sense of profound tension and instability; the same tension and instability I would imagine to have been felt by both Burden and his audience during his early performance works.
Overall, in Burden’s work there seems to be an overriding fascination with the notional category of the masculine and its deeply implicated roots in power relationships. Burden’s fixation on this often-monomaniacal masculine subject, be it himself, or some object embodiment of it, creates a contradictory image of the artist and his work. As there is often a complex and internal relationship between the one who critiques and that which is the subject of critique (e.g., I Became a Secret Hippy). Like in Burden’s early performance work, the question of his status as artist, as subject, as body and sometimes as object or absent artist create an irresolvable set of contradictions.
Are his performances mere spectacle—part of a symbolic cult of personality that seeks to elevate his body above other bodies as capable of representing broad existential questions, or moreover entire socio-historical forces? Often times, art historians and critics will contextualize the violence or intensity of his early works by claiming it is an embodiment of the radicalism of the 1970s and the atrocity of the Vietnam War. Or rather are his works brilliant in their interrogation of the boundaries of art, defying any easy reduction of the complexity of events that he authored?
Upon exiting the museum, another façade sculpture, Ghost Ship (2005), hovers above one’s head: a 30-foot double-ended sailing vessel originally designed to travel a 400-mile journey, unmanned by computer. Attached to the side of the building the ship becomes suggestive of a lifeboat, and like the towers above it, evokes a recent disaster that transformed the people and landscape of New York. Perhaps it is more of a broad cipher, meant to evoke our collective escapist fantasies— rendered immoveable as an irreverent ornament? Or is it Burden’s own fantasy of agency represented on the façade?
“Chris Burden: Extreme Measures” is on view at the New Museum, NYC, until January 12, 2014
first image, façade of the new museum, october 2013 photography dean kaufman ALL other IMAGES “Chris Burden: Extreme Measures” at New Museum, New York, 2013 Courtesy New Museum, New York. Photography Benoit Pailley