Monday, May 11, 2015

Douglas Messerli | "A Shot in the Arm, Fast Cars, and Urban Light" (on the death of Chris Burden)

a shot in the arm, fast cars, and urban light
by douglas messerli

I’ve always been a little bit afraid of Chris Burden. After all, even my title above—referencing three of his most famous works—hints at a wild kid, a bit like an updated version of the James Dean character in Rebel without a Cause: the kid shoots up on heroin, and drives fast into the urban night, like James, perhaps ready for a deathly car-crash. Burden, with his hunky build and his often scowling face, seemed, if nothing else, a bit off-putting.

     But in fact, those few times over long years that we actually spoke—in the galleries at the Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. in 1984, where Burden sat on the floor, hunched over a platform upon which he was carefully placing fifty-thousand nickels and tiny matchsticks to create his memorable The Reason for the Neutron Bomb for Howard Fox’s, Miranda McClintic’s, and Phyllis Rosenzwieg’s show Content: A Contemporary Focus 1974-1984; at several cocktail events early after Howard and I moved to Los Angeles; and, the last time that I can recall, at a birthday celebration for curator Stephanie Barron’s 60th birthday at gallerist Margo Leavin’s home, where I spoke for a long while with Burden and his wife, Nancy Rubins—he was entirely congenial and enthused. The sudden news, announced on the front page today of the Los Angeles Times, came as a shock for both Howard and me. 
     We did not know the young, and perhaps angrier Burden, who for his master’s thesis performed the “Five Day Locker Piece,” where, again imitating something that might have come directly from the high school halls of 1950s depictions of hoodlums, the artist locked himself in a school locker, with the space above filled with five gallons of bottled water and the space below holding an empty five-gallon bottle, playing fully depicting the processes of human survival which he had narrowed down and controlled into a simple in-and-out system. Nor did we know the Burden of “Shoot” in a Santa Anna gallery he arranged to have himself shot by a friend armed with a rifle about 15 feet where he sat. The event might have ended his life, but the shot grazed his arm, producing a trickle of blood which several audience thought was merely catsup, unable to grasp the reality of the situation. Nor did we know the Burden of 1974 when, for his performance piece, Trans-Fixed, he had his hands nailed while he lay face up on a Volkswagen Beetle, as if being crucified to the German consumer success.

     But we did know the Burden of the late 1970s and 1980s, who produced “The Big Wheel” in 1979, which consisted of an eight foot iron flywheel generated by a motorcycle that, when operated, spun at frightening speeds that, even after the motorcycle was shut off, continue in motion for several more hours. It was a startling representation of the vast power of what first seems so insignificant, a theme that one could perceive in many of his works. 
     The nickels and attached matchsticks of The Reason for the Neutron Bomb each represented a Russian tank, horribly literalizing the reason why the US had been forced to create the bomb. 
     Howard recalls attending the 1985 installation of Burden’s Samson, which involved a turnstile through which the visitor had to enter at the Newport Harbor Art Museum. As the turnstile ticked in the entry of the museum goer, it’s gearbox increased the pressure of two large timbers, which further pushed out against the museum walls, implying that if too patrons were to enter, eventually the museum itself might come tumbling to the ground. Here Burden satirized, in a deep way, the dangers of consumerism of art—even that of his own art—that threatened to destroy the very protectorate of its artifacts. 
     In “Exposing the Foundation of the Museum,” Burden burrowed down below the Temporary Contemporary building of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, creating the feel of an archaeological dig, suggesting what a culture centuries later might perceive of the then-buried collection of forgotten Los Angeles art.

     In “The Flying Steamroller,” the artist connected up an actual steamroller to a counterbalanced pivot arm which, as the steamroller madly circled would actually lift it, through centrifugal force, off the ground, seemingly defying physical reality.

     His Metropolis II on the other hand, consisting of an erector-set like cityscape of high-rises, surrounded by layers of freeways along which sped tiny model automobiles was a delight to both children and adults, drawing audiences to its 2011 installation in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for years after.

     But his most well-known work is the iconic Urban Light (which, along with the Walt Disney Music Hall, so I am told, are the most visited spots in all of Los Angeles)—a Greek Temple-like installation of various public light fixtures from Los Angeles streets representing different historical approaches to the design of the iron lamps—located at the entrance to the museum, directly across the street from our home and my nearby office. I pass this seemingly ordinary and yet astonishingly mesmerizing sculptural configuration several times every day, sometimes at night and in early mornings when the plaza shines like a beacon inviting people to the museum even when closed. Tourists and professional photographers alike snap themselves and their models standing and playing amongst its intricate columns. The power that emanates from this sculptural gathering is, obviously, light power; but it also reveals the power of both such everyday utilities of the city created expressly for the people who inhabit it, and its citizens as they go about their daily lives. And one cannot get away from the feeling that, in this work, Burden has given Los Angeles a gift that plays out the relationship of our lives in this magical noir-like city bathed nearly every day in golden sunlight.
     It is perhaps significant that the artist died of malignant melanoma, a cancer that is associated with the rays of too much sun.

May 11, 2015

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