One late evening in October 1972, the artist Chris Burden mounted two large X’s on a road in Southern California, lit them on fire, and left the area. One can only imagine the visceral, hyper-real experience of encountering such a spectacle on an empty road in the middle of the night.
On ViewThe New Museum
October 2, 2013 – January 12, 2014
In contrast to this work, “Dos Equis” (1972), and most of Burden’s early performance pieces, the majority of the work that dominates the New Museum’s survey Extreme Measures is designed for a very large audience. Occupying the entire museum, it presents a series of megalithic sculptures dedicated to themes of war and exuding a consistently hyper-masculine, hyper-violent energy. While seminal early pieces like “Shoot” (1971) were witnessed by only a handful, Burden’s “Twin Quasi Legal Skyscrapers” (2013), two aluminum “skyscrapers” that obviously ape the structure of the fallen World Trade Center, are mounted on the roof of the building for the entire neighborhood to see. “Ghost Ship” (2005), a handmade sailboat that drives itself via GPS, is mounted on the museum’s façade. This is art hardly for an insular art world, but art that is public and registers an intense presence in the downtown neighborhood.
Iconic images of Burden’s shocked face, taken after a piece in which the artist was shot by his assistant at a sparsely attended gallery performance in 1972, are only to be found in a book exhibited in a small space on the museum’s top floor. There you can page through a collection of images of Burden’s early work: “Chris Burden Deluxe Photo Book, 1971-73” (1974). Pieces like “Icarus” (1973), where the artist affixed two huge flaming planes of glass to his arms, and “Through the Night Softly” (1973) where Burden crawled through 50 feet of broken glass for an audience of passersby, are presented on austere pages with short commentary. There is also an audio interview about the aforementioned “Shoot” (1972), which became a kind of local demonstration of the violence of the war in Vietnam and inspired a thousand art-school imitators (one of whom, in 2005, to Burden’s horror, played Russian Roulette in front of a classroom at UCLA), and a film of many of Burden’s other performances from that period.
Alternately, two massive sculptures occupy the entire floor below. “The Big Wheel” (1979), a humongous cast-iron flywheel set in motion by a motorcycle that a gallery attendant rides at intermittent periods throughout the day, is a visceral demonstration of motorized force; the action leaves the wheel spinning for a period of over two hours after the performance is over. While pieces like “Trans-fixed” (1974), where the artist famously crucified himself to the hood of a Volkswagen Beetle, absorbed the mechanized violence of the automobile into the artist’s own body, “The Big Wheel” takes that energy and re-directs it at the spectator. Adjacently installed is “Porsche with Meteorite” (2013), a yellow 1974 Porsche and a meteorite suspended opposite each other above the ground. The piece underscores the alien power of both objects, in that each of their energies originates from a literal and figurative otherworldly place.
In a stairwell normally reserved for smaller installations between floors is “Tower of Power” (1985), four million dollars worth of gold bricks configured in a pyramidal shape. The work is accessible only from the third floor and is protected 24/7 by a security guard who makes you wait in line and put your bag into a metal locker (interesting to think that Burden once locked himself in one of these for five days). Even in “Tower of Power’s” historic context—Reagan’s re-election and Andy Warhol’s 1985 series Reigning Queens (portraits of the queens of England dusted with diamond dust)—the irony implied by the permanent stationing of a security guard two floors above the artist’s series of oversize police uniforms (“L.A.P.D. Uniforms” ), even if intentional, is problematic. “Tower of Power’s” profanity doesn’t quite meet the heights of Damien Hirst’s 100 million dollar “For the Love of God” (2007), but even as a ‘prescient’ criticism to such art-world excess or recent Wall Street greed, it too closely apes what it criticizes (the piece is courtesy of Gagosian Gallery).
The rest of the third floor is dominated by work with a similarly monumental affect: a series of large architectural bridges and Meccano construction kits that underscore the impressive ability of architects to reshape their environment, and perhaps, the latent violence of such an action—a pair of bronze cannons “Pair of Namur Mortars”(2013)—emphasizes this. More interesting is “The Rant” (2006), a bizarre, two-minute video that shows Burden in a bathtub speaking French with an impeccable accent. In the character of a xenophobic mystic, Burden preaches philosophical nonsense about a foreign enemy and the difference between men and animals. Here there is some real mystery to the encounter; it reminds me of the atmosphere of some obscure anthroposophical screed or Bergson’s writings on evolution, with the same privative power of “Dos Equis.”
The second floor features a series of pieces that focus on the militaristic substrata of American culture—its imperialism, relentless infatuation with guns, and glorification of violence. “A Tale of Two Cities” (1981) and “All the Submarines of the United States of America” (1987) both use children’s toys as representations of military might and its thematic prevalence in the average American home. “Two Cities” showcases two miniature cityscapes surrounded by massive toy armies that clash within an enormous, site-specific diorama. When I viewed the exhibition, there were scores of children eagerly examining the installation, many through binoculars provided by the museum. “All the Submarines” presents a cardboard replica of every U.S. submarine manufactured through 1987 in a seemingly whimsical display of U.S. military might.
“Ghost Ship,” secured almost comically on the façade of the museum, is a high point of the exhibition. Unlike “Twin Quasi Legal Skyscrapers,” which makes no clear comment on much of anything, and is not tasteless enough to be offensive or poignant enough to be remarkable, “Ghost Ship” has immediate connotations for our post-Snowden world. The ship, like Burden’s earliest work, is designed with a purportedly small audience in mind, as it sails the seas for no particular spectator, but ends up being universally relevant and highly visible. Its public display highlights a valuable and ironic tension that runs through the entire exhibition; driven by an automated computer program, it is an updated ghost ship, an avatar for clandestine technological might—really “no ghost, just a shell.” It is violent in the same way as all of the other objects that populate Extreme Measures—an object best encountered at midnight, its threat stemming not from its immediate presence but its gesture at an uncertain future.