Chris Burden, a master of many modes of expression, would have found favour with the Renaissance Humanists. But his capacity with design, architecture and engineering dominates the current exhibition at the New Museum, Chris Burden: Extreme Measures. Each floor showcases only a few works, as most are either very heavy, expansive, or both. But the intricacy within each example is quite dense with many layers of nuance and meaning, suggested and inferred.
The show is itself an exploration of mixed media. It offers a full scope of the artist’s large scale architectural and mechanical engineering pieces, as well as highlights and documentation of his earlier performance works, augmented with contemporary video art, and more purely conceptual art. Included is an enlightening BBC interview with the artist about his now infamous performance piece Shoot. His presence at the space permeates the Museum’s walls and ceiling. A large handmade boat once sailed 400 miles is hung on the façade of the building and a miniaturised dual skyscraper is built onto the rooftop.
The Big Wheel, installed on the fourth floor, is a vertically affixed 6000 (American) pound cast-iron fly wheel mounted on wood trussing. Periodically it is set in motion by Museum staff through the aid of a 1968 Benelli 250cc motorcycle. It is not only a performance piece, and thus a slightly ironic nod to Burden’s earlier work, it is also an astonishing feat of engineering. Graceful in its execution and powerful in its solidity and speed, the eight-foot diameter wheel spins at approximately 200 RPM. During the massive wheel’s two hour release of kinetic energy not a wobble can be visually discerned.
This meld of grand simplicity and complex style is mirrored in gigantic artworks like 1 Ton Crane Truck exhibited on the lobby floor and Porsche and Meteorite, which is placed on the fourth floor next to The Big Wheel. Both artworks are monumental and embody a Zen-like sense of balance. The Ford truck and Porsche are both fully functional and impeccably restored with some updating with novel materials. While the 1964 F350 Ford crane truck is balanced against a uniquely crafted one ton weight hanging from its crane boom, the Porsche is balanced by a meteorite approximately one sixth its weight. In each artwork there is a stillness created through a precise alignment of geometry, physics and materials, and yet also a latent evocation of motion and flight (the Porsche has an Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association sticker in the rear window). Chris Burden’s “inert” artwork vibrates with life.
While many of Burden’s conceptual pieces suggest social themes, two in the show do so directly. L.A.P.D.Uniforms, boutique replicas of the actual uniforms worn by officers of the Los Angeles Police Department, are enlarged to seven feet tall and hang like unstuffed scarecrows to two adjacent walls. Created by Burden in collaboration with the Philadelphia-based Fabric Workshop, the manufacturer’s name in the inside label is cheekily called Conqueror. His short video piece Rant features Burden in the persona of a xenophobic French preacher in swim goggles in a pool. Channeling the pseudo-psychological blather of the corrupted clergyman in support of an enforced social order, Burden gives a speech in French with English subtitles. Ripe phrases such as, “I want to announce to the people that I sense among us a foreign force …” are the compositional elements of a unique parody heightened in its ridiculousness vis-à-vis the emotionless seriousness with which the bad philosophy is engaged.
Often discarded in practice within the field of architecture is the building of three-dimensional models of plans in order to more fully explore the potential and limits of one’s design. Burden exposes this oversight with three models of bridges in the show as well as with Tyne Bridge Kit, a full set of over 100,000 bridge parts with instructions and tools for construction, housed in a wooden cabinet. Burden’s extended wall labels provide context for conception and construction of the three-dimensional forms. All three bridges are advanced examinations of forces and controlled dynamics yet they remain with one foot in the realm of art and in that sense illusion because while they may be able to carry a load, we do not know that they can carry a load across a distance. However they are nonetheless a part of the conversation of bridge engineering and should no doubt pull a few members from the Bridge Engineering Association on Madison Avenue to the show. Particularly tasteful and economical in its delivery is Three Arch Dry Stack Bridge, 1/4 Scale. The bridge uses no mortar and its stones are held together by gravity.
Chris Burden: Extreme Measures only fails a little bit and that is through the slightly pedantic label text for Tower of Power, a small temple-like mound made of bars of pure gold surrounded by men made of matchsticks. “Like the matchstick men, our lives are relatively transient and consumable in relation to the ascribed and lasting power of gold.” If we ascribe power to gold and we ourselves are transient and consumable, then so too must gold’s status of power be transient and consumable as well.
The majority of works in Extreme Measures are so highly articulate that the notions of tension, risk, discomfort and challenge ascribed to Burden’s works are only present if someone told you they would be. The works themselves are fluid and calm; even the documentations of earlier performance works hold as records of a non-reality to be inspected formally. The exhibition is a smartly rendered 40-year overview of some aspects of the life of an artist apparently dedicated to perfection and a poignant sensibility.
Chris Burden: Extreme Measures, 2 October until 12 January, New Museum, 235 Bowery, New York, NY 10002. www.newmuseum.org
1. All the Submarines of the United States of America, 1987. Courtesy New Museum
2. 1 Ton Crane Truck, 2009. Courtesy the artist and Gagosian Gallery