by Kostas Prapoglou
The provocative personality of the late Chris Burden (1946-2015) was undeniably a landmark of artistic creativity in 1970s America. Engaging himself in all sorts of controversial practices –predominately jeopardising his own physical integrity – he pushed the boundaries of performance on an unprecedented scale. Burden made a name for himself with a succession of performances, two of them being Shoot(1971) and Trans-fixed(1974); during the first enactment the artist had himself shot in the arm by a friend and in the second he appeared lying face up on the roof of a Volkswagen Beetle with his two hands nailed as if he had been crucified on it. Burden soon moved away from his performance pieces and, from as early as the mid-70s, gradually developed a keen interest in producing installation works and establishing a clear reference to engineering and architecture, which he pursuit at Pomona College, Claremont, California. He began employing children’s toys for the construction of a series of large museum-scale sculptures; these considerably increased in size and complexity each time. Such works are Tale of Two Cities(1981), All the Submarines of the United States of America(1987), Fist of Light (1992), Hell Gate(1998) and Metropolis II(2011). In 2008, he created Urban Light, the iconic public sculpture evoking the shape of an ancient Greek temple, permanently installed at the entrance of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and consisting of 202 restored street lamps from Southern California dating from the 1920s and 1930s.
Two of Burden’s more recent works are currently on display at the Gagosian Britannia Street galleries in London. Titled Measured, the exhibition features 1 Ton Crane Truck (2009) and Porsche with Meteorite (2013). Previously exhibited in Extreme Measures, a major retrospective on his oeuvre during 2013-2014 at New York’s New Museum, the two installations – or sculptures, as he would probably prefer to call them – reflect his continuing intentions to expand the perception of space and put to the test the limitations, deficiencies and unexpected properties and strength of all materials used for both works in literal and metaphorical sense.
The bright colors and perfect condition of both vehicles – which according to the accompanying exhibition literature have been fully restored utilizing original materials – are redolent of toy or non-real cars. Yet, the direct declaration of the weight of the suspended cast-iron cube (1 TON) and the physical appearance of the hanging iron meteorite (purchased on ebay by the artist himself) in balancing act with the Porsche 914 (weighting 993.4 kg) articulate the imprint of objective reality before the viewer’s eyes. The emerging juxtaposition between the toy-looking vehicles and the almost surreal and unsettling symbiosis with their weighty counterparts blurs the boundaries of materiality. And although at first reading Burden seems to have liberated himself from his older devices of personal danger as means of artistic expression, the two works continue to convey and verbalize just that but in an allusive manner. The sturdiness of both vehicles and heavy weights undeniably create to the viewer a subliminal fear, a threat and a sense of vulnerability. And this is exactly what Burden was driven by in his 70s performances. Back then, he actively opposed in a corporeal and emotional capacity to the political backdrop during the Vietnam war period and simultaneously challenged social power structures and personal responsibility.
The balancing act of his vehicles is a vibrant metaphor of the equilibrium he has been negotiating with, not only during the start of his career but also in his entire life. Through his visual vocabulary he unstoppably posed questions on issues around power and authority, conformity, moralism, humanism, private and public life. He fantasized of a future world where speed and space would perhaps play a pivotal role in our lives; a world where gravitational rules would not be as significant, yet still important enough to make us remember who we are and where we come from.
Chris Burden, Measured, Gagosian Gallery, Britannia Street, London, UK runs through January 26, 2019.
Dr. Kostas Prapoglou is an archaeologist-architect,
contemporary art writer, critic and curator
based in London, UK and Athens, Greece.