Chris Burden

Read our profile from the ArtReview archive on the late American performance artist and sculptor, from the August 2006 issue

By Doug Harvey

Fourteen Magnolia Doubles, 2006. Photo: Ari Marcopoulos

19 November will mark the thirty-fifth anniversary of an artwork that has almost certainly had the highest duration-to-influence ratio of any in history. In the time it took a 22-calibre bullet to make the passage through Chris Burden’s left arm during the seminal performance Shoot, the artist sealed his fate as a star. Practically overnight Burden became an artist about whom everyone had an opinion. The general consensus was that he had gone too far – that Shoot was reckless and irresponsible, an attention-seeking spectacle and not worthy of being called art at all. Nevertheless, Burden had arguably closed the door on a certain outrage-fuelled momentum that had been propelling the avant-garde for the previous century. How do you follow an act like that? In some ways it seems that art history was dragged through the wormhole in Burden’s arm, and has been running backwards ever since – who knows what slightly tweaked retro schtick will next be foisted upon the amnesiac art world as daring and innovative? An unmade bed? Please.

Even if the art world was backpedaling furiously from the implications of Shoot, it didn’t stop Burden from following his own peripatetic trajectory though a series of landmark performances ranging from the aggressively perilous – the near self-electrocution of Doorway to Heaven (1973) and the auto-crucifixion of Trans-fixed (1974) – to the presciently social (anonymously serving cappuccino to San Francisco gallery visitors for a week in 1976) and antisocial (an unmade bed displayed as art for 22 days in early 1972 – in this case occupied by the resolutely noncommunicative artist). Gradually, these ephemeral theatrical events segued into relatively traditional sculptural works. Some were installations like Samson (1985) – a monster turnstile/jack hybrid that forced two timber beams against the load-bearing museum walls with increasing pressure as each visitor entered – and Exposing the Foundations of the Museum (1986–8), which did literally that by turning a chamber in LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art into a drolly politicized archaeological allegory.

Other works presaged the techno-geek sub-genre of sculpture, with a distinctive DIY utopian twist – 1977’s BCar, a prototype one-man vehicle designed to go 100 mph and get 100 mpg, or CBTV (also 1977), a recreation of the first functioning (mechanical) television, made by Scottish inventor John L. Baird in 1924. While the public remained morbidly fixated on the shock value of Burden’s early work, those who paid closer attention began to recognize them as merely the most intimate in an evolving series of complex probes into the formal and political structures connecting the human body to the world at large. Often the work took the form of physical literalizations of unfathomable numerical data, as in The Other Vietnam Memorial (1991), which displayed millions of Vietnamese names on a giant copper Rolodex-like tower, or The Reason for the Neutron Bomb (1979), which featured a matchstick-armed nickel laid out on the floor for each of the 50,000 Soviet tanks poised just behind the iron curtain.

“I’d like to think that the politics is not clear,” said Burden (who, incidentally, doesn’t look anything like his sixty-ish years) recently in the studio of his Topanga Canyon compound. “The reason for building the neutron bomb – or trying to develop it – was all these tanks. We were outnumbered two-to-one, and their tanks are better, and yada-yada…. So I wasn’t pro or against the Neutron Bomb per se: I wanted to see what 50,000 tanks looked like, to turn a statistic into a sculptural form. Sometimes it’s nice to change the information – I think that’s what art does in general. It takes something that exists and moulds it into another form so that you can look at it differently.”

Burden’s latest transformations are scheduled for nearly simultaneous openings in London and Milan in September. At the South London Gallery, he’s debuting Fourteen Magnolia Doubles: a colonnade of 1920s cast-iron streetlamps weighing in at approximately one-and-a-half tonnes per unit. This selection represents only a small proportion of the close to 200 individual examples he’s recovered and restored since the turn of the Millennium, most of which are fully functional and arrayed in a taxonomic grid around two sides of the barn-like studio, creating a distinctly neo-classical architectural corridor of fluted columns and ornamental capitals. “It’s a project called Urban Light. They’re really beautiful – there used to be about 40,000 of them in LA, and there’s only about a thousand left standing in little pockets here and there. Most of them were destroyed, put in landfills. They come in in bits and pieces. We have them sandblasted and then fill in any imperfections with this stuff called JB Weld [epoxy] and that gets ground down, then they’re taken to get powder coated and then we assemble them here – these have been up and down the hill two or three times.”

It seems a strangely obsessive-compulsive sort of pursuit for Burden, perhaps influenced by his wife Nancy Rubins, a sculptor, whose work often features accumulations of discarded water heaters or aeroplane parts. What could have been the starting point of nearly six years of devoted salvage and restoration work? “I was at the Rose Bowl [swap meet] shopping and I saw two twin poles spread out on the ground in parts,” says Burden “and I said to the guy who was selling them ‘How much are they?’ and he quoted me a price and said ‘If you buy both of them, I’ll deliver them.’ He came out and I asked ‘Do you have any more?’ He said he had four. And so I wrote him another cheque. At one point I’d bought all the lamps he had in his North Hollywood backyard, and so I asked whether anyone else had these lamps. It was only at that point – I’d already been dealing with him for a year and a half – that he let on that he had another 85 stored out in Pomona. And he went ‘But you’ll have more than I have!’ There’s a collector’s mentality that goes along with it. There’s kind of a gang of guys that swap them and restore them and put them up in fancy mansions.”

It seems a long haul from Burden’s violent, explicitly ephemeral actions of the early 1970s to his cultivating credibility in a peculiar collecting subculture in order to accumulate masses of antique fi ligreed utilitarian monuments. Burden refers to the lampposts as “ornate totems to industrialism” and emphasizes their unlikeliness in contemporary society. “They’re more than what a lamppost needs to be. They spent a lot of money and e_ ort to make these things and its a form of early public art where you’re using the infrastructure but you’re spending a lot of money on it to make it great. They represent a time when there was an optimism and people were willing to spend that kind of money. No one would be willing to do that today.” In spite of an underlying frisson of politics – both in the objects themselves and the convoluted negotiations necessary to their acquisition, Burden – sculptor that he is – seems most enthralled by the sheer physical presence and baroque grandeur of the objects in and of themselves. In an elegant inversion of Minimalist truth-to-materials, he has given the lamps a uniform grey enamel finish and categorized them in symmetrical same-style clusters that owes as much to Carl André as it does to the Parthenon, folding the supposed reforms of Bauhaus-derived cityscapes back into what now seems in retrospect an ironically more humanist pre- Modern romanticism.

Burden’s nostalgia-tinged interest in this kind of orderly, optimistic object lesson – symbolizing the social possibilities encoded in America’s industrial infrastructure – dates back to the late 1990s with his elaborately faithful Erector and Meccano-set reproductions of various nineteenth- and twentieth-century bridges. Lest anyone concern themselves unduly that the Urban Light project indicates the onset of complacency, however, Burden’s exhibition in Milan’s Galleria Massimo De Carlo offers a neat précis of the artist’s concurrent strain of distopian, verging-on-paranoiac work, culminating in his latest DIY post-apocalyptic architectural object, titled Beehive Bunker. A nine-and-a-half-foot tall 30,000 lb tapering cylinder assembled from stacked bags of quick-setting concrete (leaving gaps for six evenly-spaced gunslots, of course) watered to structural integrity by a soaker-hose inserted between each layer, reinforced with rebar and stainless-steel wire and topped with a manhole cover, versions of the Beehive Bunker have been previously constructed for Art Basel 2006 and high atop a ridge on Burden’s property.

The other portions of the Milan exhibition consist of a new video projection of Burden’s face as he delivers a nonsectarian messianical rant in French, the 2003 blingbang cast 22K gold replicas of various bullets, displayed as decorative aesthetic objects (“baby Brancusis” Burden calls them) sorted into groups of “roundies” and “pointies” and stamped with the artisan’s CB/GB hallmark – and the simultaneously ominous and ridiculous giant-sized LAPD uniforms dating to LA’s tumultuous early 1990s, when martial law seemed immanent. But Beehive Bunker is clearly the centerpiece. “It was conceived as a part of this show,” emphasizes Burden as we hike to the top of the ridgeline. “It’s poetic. What if you were an insurgent group? Two guys could build that over the weekend. And it’s serious. It’s such mundane materials – it’s bags of concrete, you can buy them at the hardware store. It’s not a toy or a joke. If the day ever came when you have to get in that thing – it’s not good. You know what I’m saying? That’s not the day that you want to have come.”

From the top of the Topanga Beehive Bunker, you can see for miles – clear to the Pacific Ocean in fact. A good place to make a stand. When most of the art world recoiled from the Shoot heard round the world, diving for cover behind whatever familiar decorative or quasi-conceptual duck-blind they could find, Burden instead moved out into the world, applying the same individual proprietary demands on the physical manifestations of collective social power that he had previously used to stake a claim on his own body. Decisions about engineering, architecture, cityplanning, and other monied-backroom and bureaucratic sculptural domains are, in Chris Burden’s work, redesignated as the responsibility of the individual visionary artist. Taking the dissolution of the boundary between life and art as a given – rather than a failed Modernist utopian whimsy – Fourteen Magnolia Doubles and Beehive Bunker offer two possible paths for the near future of Western civilization. The day when we stroll through glowing gardens of Greco-Roman lampposts may be the day we want to have come, but personally I’m leaning toward the Beehive. At least from Burden’s vantage, there’s still a choice.  

This article was first published in the August 2006 issue.