Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Chris Burden: Extreme Measures

Mad stacks: Tower of Power, 1985. Photo of New Museum installation by Benoit Pailley.
Chris Burden has finally received a retrospective of his major works, at the New Museum through January 12, titled Chris Burden: Extreme Measures. He became known in the 1970s for his conceptual performances, many with a survivalist or crazy bent, depending on your perspective: White Light/White Heat, when he lived hidden away on a shelf in the Feldman Gallery for three weeks; being nailed to a VW Beetle (Trans-fixed, 1974); having himself shot in the arm (Shoot, 1971); crawling nearly naked across an expanse of broken glass (Through the Night Softly, 1973). 

The Big Wheel (1979) indicated his affinity for machinery and cause and effect; a motorcycle powers a large flywheel, which continues to spin long after the bike detaches. His radical and self-endangering approach further shifted in the 80s and 90s to large-scale installations that sometimes entailed tallying, obsessiveness, and doom-casting. The Reason for the Neutron Bomb comprised 50,000 nickels topped with wooden matches in a mesmerizing mind-bogglingly large grid, representing the estimated number of Soviet tanks behind the Iron Curtain. 

Burden has managed to balance big geopolitical concepts with the love of toys and machinery, a sort of evolved version of kids playing with toy soldiers, and then growing up and going to battle. Tale of Two Cities, a sprawling work using such small-scale cityscapes and small-town stuff, alludes to the rise of rogue states (binoculars are supplied to zoom into the many tiny scenes, standing in for media). All the Submarines of the United States of America (1987) comprises 625 small cardboard subs hung in an artful cluster. 
1 Ton Crane Truck, 2009. Photo courtesy the artist and Gagosian Gallery.
The most infamous sculpture in the show is Tower of Power (1985), a pyramid of 100 one-kilo gold bars surrounded by cheering matchstick people; the value was $1 million on its creation, and it's far more now. The New Museum has several guards on duty for this piece, located in the niche gallery between floors; you have to stow your stuff in a gym locker and wait in a queue to see it, which invariably becomes the performance element of the piece. It perfectly symbolizes, and actually represents, the allure of power—dense, glittering mad stacks indeed.

Two more recent works play with scale, balance, and function. Porsche with Meteorite (2013) is just that; the two objects balance like scales, the car among the cheapest produced by Porsche in collaboration with VW, and the meteorite, a dense chunk of mineral matter that originates from who-knows-where, both with the ability to hurtle along speedily, and the one potential base material for the other. 1 Ton Crane Truck (2009), installed in the ground floor rear gallery, involves a 5,000 lb. truck hoisting a one-ton weight. It looks like a scaled-up toy, the truck and the weight painted a playful orange. It also epitomizes the artist's blammo visual punchline that is the result of painstaking planning and procedure.

New Museum. Photo: Benoit Pailley
Two works that refer to New York disasters—Hurricane Sandy and 9/11—are installed on the museum's exterior. The Ghost Ship (2005) sits a bit awkwardly—well, like a ship out of water—pinned like a corsage on the fa├žade. The 30' vessel can be sailed unmanned, remotely, like a drone, to resupply ports in need; it successfully navigated a 400-mile trip in Scotland. Atop the museum is Twin Quasi Legal Skyscrapers (2013), two mock skyscrapers, a spartan salute to the fallen World Trade Towers. Though perhaps meant as tributes, these two works feel a bit like an afterthought, and somewhat peripheral to the main show.

Several of Burden's small-scale bridges are on view, two succinctly described by title: Three Arch Dry Stack Bridge, 1/4 Scale (2013), Triple 21 Foot Truss Bridge (2013), plus Mexican Bridge (1998), with very tall piers. The latter two are made of Mecano and Erector set pieces, and a "bridge kit" is also on view—an old-fashioned wooden bureau of drawers that holds everything needed to put together a small Tyne Bridge. While these appeal as grown-up toys, their conceptual meatiness is less resonant than much of the artist's oeuvre. But after a career of grueling work and endangerment by performance or sheer physical danger, why not build some bridges?

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