Saturday, May 16, 2015

Douglas Messerli | "The Sculpture That Flies" (on Chris Burden's Ode to Santos-Dumont)

the sculpture that flies
By Douglas Messerli

Chris Burden Ode to Santos Dumont / Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Resnick Pavilion / I
attended the event on May 15, 2015 Friday, May 15 I attended the press conference for a new work by Chris Burden, Ode to Santos-Dumont, a moving helium-filled sculpture in the form of a balloon with an attached body made of what appears to be erector-set-like ballast that serves as an homage to the petrol engine-powered dirigible that the Brazilian aviation pioneer, Alberto Santos-Dumont, flew around the Eiffel Tower in Paris in 1901.

     Burden, obviously, had long been interested in all forms of transportation, as his works such as Flying Steamroller and Metropolis II revealed. But, more importantly, this delicately, white-hued dirigible represents the important theme running throughout nearly all of his performances and installations: the artist’s insistence that through research, hard work, and, perhaps even personal suffering, one can indeed create or achieve the seemingly impossible: to construct a structure much larger than an individual might be expected to create, to reveal a power that far exceeds what is logically expected, or to endure human pain and deprivation that is beyond our imagination. As if being secretly directed by his family name, the artist took on the burden of creating things of the imagination larger than the self.


     And there we were, several dozens of onlookers, in the vast back space of the Resnick Gallery—in view of another sculpture, Michael Heizer’s Levitated Mass, symbolizing the power of human ingenuity—as if we were about to witness the Wright Brother’s first flight at Kitty Hawk. And indeed, there was surely something just as magical as that amazing aeronautical event, just as it must have seemed to witnesses of the short voyage of Santos-Dumont’s balloon around the Eiffel Tower. 
     The nearly translucent balloon, with its attached flight control housing, rose, and began its voyage, quietly floating above the crowd in its 60-foot circle of a flight pattern once, twice, three, and four times before returning to its standing platform. If this was not truly a miracle of aviation, it certainly stood as a fitting symbol of those miraculous events, when Icarus not only dared to fly to the sun, but actually succeeded in achieving the human desire to take to the skies. How Chris would have loved to observe the wonderment expressed on our collective faces!
     After the flight, I retreated to the first floor of the nearby Broad building to once again glimpse Burden’s car-speeding cityscape, Metropolis II, within which is buried yet another tribute to the Santos-Dumont voyage, a model of the Eiffel Tower, facing the architecturally postmodern homes that look out onto its graceful 19th century metal girding.
     In retrospect, a day later, I also see this work, along with Urban Light, as the most literally “lightest,” uplifting, and buoyant of all Burden’s works. If there was always a feeling in most of his influential performances and installations of a sort of brutal elf attempting to bollix up established notions of normality, in this and in Urban Light Burden is the volatile, swift-winged god of science and commerce, transforming light into the urban landscape, who also enables a dangerous voyage into the dark underworld. Yet Mercury is a dangerous substance, at once life-sustaining and deadly, and Burden was always both of these. The marvel of the beautiful white balloon is that it sustains its projected course, particularly because it is tethered to its posts; but the fear and problem is whether or not it can maintain its circuit. If, for example, the beautiful dirigible where to shift from its trajectory, speeding up its precise sustaining engines, it might possibly crash itself into the walls of the friendly and encompassing museum environment. This particular balloon is completely controlled, tethered into position. But doesn’t the alternative represent the potential all living things, despite their DNA-determined destinies, who just as often shift off into trajectories that might destroy themselves and others? Icarus, after all, is an unreliable dreamer.  
The public viewing begin on Monday, May 18, when there will be regular performances (at noon, 2 pm, and 4 pm on Mondays and Thursdays), (1 pm, 3 pm, 5 pm, and 7 pm on Fridays) (and at noon, 2 pm , 4 pm, and 6 pm on Saturdays and Sundays).
Los Angeles, May 16, 2015

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