Thursday, May 14, 2015

IN MEMORIAM: Chris Burden (April 11, 1946-May 10, 2015)

Monday’s New York Times featured an obituary on the American sculptor and installation artist, Chris Burden. He died on Sunday at his home in Topanga Canyon, California. The cause was malignant melanoma. Burden was 69 years old.

In her Times obituary, Margalit Fox details Burden’s early work as a conceptual and performance artist, noting that he “employed the most minimal materials possible: segments of his own body....[to an extent that] he became the canvas.”

What she writes is quite true, and Chris Burden’s early work gave him broad and instant fame, as he brazenly pushed the boundaries of acceptability. Nevertheless, his later work earned him a much more lasting fame. Christopher Knight said it well in his obituary from the Los Angeles Times: “Few might have guessed that his work would someday hold such an exalted position within the civic consciousness.”

I, certainly, was astounded by Burden’s later work when I saw his retrospective in New York’s New Museum, Chris Burden: Extreme Measures (October 2013-January 2014).  This fascinating show even inspired me to devote an entire blog post on it in November, 2013, which I titled: “Chris Burden at the New Museum: A Major Artist Comes of Age.”

As a way to remember Chris Burden and his artistic explorations, let me offer these following three examples of his later work:  Ghost Ship, 2005;  Metropolis II, 2006;  and Urban Light, 2008. 

Ghost Ship:

Chris Burden, Ghost Ship, 2005, New Museum, Manhattan, New York 

Burden had this 30-foot Ghost Ship built at the request of a Newcastle art group, Locus +, as part of a tall ships festival. It then sailed, crewless, from Fair Isle, Scotland to Newcastle upon Tyne, England, where it arrived on July 28, 2005 after an eight day sail. Here is a video (7:36) made from that voyage.

It often is referred to, incorrectly, as a "self-navigating sailboat." However, its voyage was radio-controlled by an accompanying mother ship. Ghost Ship then was stored on the Newcastle docks until finding its home, hanging much like a lifeboat off the fa├žade of the New Museum.

There is something eerie about seeing a sailboat gybing, tacking, and reaching with no humans aboard. It is a vision which conjures up centuries of nautical lore, as in Coleridge's spectre bark or the doomed Flying Dutchman. Burden contributed to the mystery of Ghost Ship when he stated that "it's still symbolically some sort of escape vehicle."

Metropolis II:

Chris Burden, Metropolis II, 2006 ff, LACMA, Los Angeles, California

Chris Burden, Metropolis II, 2006 ff, detail,  LACMA, Los Angeles, California

Chris Burden, Metropolis II, 2006 ff, detail, LACMA, Los Angeles, California

Metropolis II is a model city consisting of railway lines and multiple levels of freeways, one of which is six lanes wide, which enwrap, straddle and weave through its skyscrapers and smaller-scaled buildings.

Even though Burden had made an earlier, simpler Metropolis--therefore naming this one Metropolis II--it's hard to imagine that he wasn't also influenced to some extent by Fritz Lang's iconic, dystopian movie, Metropolis, of 1927.  Here, too, we encounter an urban fabric of skyscrapers, elevated train lines and soaring freeways. But in Lang's film, this superstructure masks a dark world of class repression. 

Burden's sculptural installation, in contrast, is a paean to speed and modern technology.

Metropolis II employs 1,100 Hot Wheels cars which travel on 18 roadways. Set in motion, as Burden once noted, they "are going a scale speed of 230 mph." Given the regular traffic tie-ups in Los Angeles, "that'd be great to do for real in L.A.," he added. 

Burden also saw Metropolis II as a prototype for a time when we no longer control our cars, and so they can drive faster as well as be safer. That time may not be so distant, as a New Yorker article of November, 2013 suggests in its sub-title: "Has the self-driving car at last arrived?"

Regrettably, I did not visit LACMA on a Friday-Sunday, when Metropolis II is turned on and the hot wheels are set in motion. Go to this link for the exact times.  However, here are two links to YouTube videos: "Metropolis II...the Movie" (5:41) and "Giant Hot Wheels Sculpture" (3:37).

Urban Light:

Chris Burden, Urban Light, 2006 ff, LACMA, Wilshire Boulevard entrance, Los Angeles, California

Chris Burden, Urban Light, 2006 ff, detail, LACMA, Los Angeles, California

Urban Light is an arrangement of 202 restored street lamps that once served Los Angeles and surrounding cities and towns in the 1920s and 1930s. They differ in style as well as in size, ranging from ca. 20 feet to 30 feet in height. They are solar powered and are switched on at night.

Burden began collecting vintage lamp posts in December of 2000, when he bought two at the Rose Bowl Flea Market. As he collected more, he set them up outside of his home studio. Eventually, LACMA arranged to purchase them and install them on the open piazza that was part of the architect, Renzo Piano's new designs for the museum. 

Urban Light was first switched on on February 7, 2008. Since then, it has become one of the biggest attractions in Los Angeles. LACMA head, Michael Govan calls it an "open air temple," an appropriate analogy given its scale and the fluted cast-iron shafts. Chris Burden, making reference back to the Mid-Wilshire district of Los Angeles that was once dominated by major Art-Deco buildings, was delighted that Urban Light allowed him "to put the miracle back in the Miracle Mile."

Anybody who may be in Los Angeles from next week through mid-June should visit LACMA (preferably from a Friday-Sunday in order to experience Metropolis II in action). During these weeks--May 18, 2015 through June 21, 2015--LACMA will debut the final, and as yet unseen, Chris Burden creation in the Resnick Pavilion.  Burden's final piece is titled, Ode to Santos Dumont.

Alberto Santos-Dumont was an aviation pioneer who, in 1901, flew his dirigible in a controlled flight around the Eiffel Tower. He then went on to build heavier-than-air flying machines. Burden has made a scale version of the Santos-Dumont 1901 dirigible, and it will fly at LACMA throughout the weeks of its showing.
How better to celebrate the life of this creative artist than to, almost literally, experience his presence in one more technological wonder that he has brought to life and turned into art