Chris Burden: Extreme Measures


Burden’s show at the New Museum dabbled in both the expected and unexpected. I won’t delve in my point of view just yet, that would be insensitive, unsophisticated, academically improper, unconventionally conceited. Better to start with some contextualization. Chris Burden was born in 1946 from an engineer and a biologist. He grew up in Cambridge, MA, France and Italy and received his BA from Pomona College and his MFA in 1971 from Uni. of California, Irvine. Burden thus emerges on the west coast in the early 70s, in the midst of second wave feminism and the exploration for a “dematerialization” of the art object.

I went to the show with a friend on a Thursday around 7pm, the perfect time for a crowded hustle and bustle (bleh) and (but) a good deal (the museum is by donation). We head over to the fifth floor, the beginning of the expo, where the we are welcomed with two video works, a series of laminated copies of Burden’s past works, experiences and projects and an general reminder that the entire museum is occupied by this artist… We proceed to the fourth floor where we find The Big Wheel (1979), Porsche with a Meteor (2013), a video project. Then third floor which includes Burden’s bridge pieces and a video of a spatially and temporally specific project he did in the past. Second floor contains large scale installations including A Tale of Two Cities (1981) and All the Submarines of the United States of America (1987)… Overall, quite a number of what-strikes-as minimalist-constructivist-industrialist works are at hand proffered in quite a spectrum of genre and medium (videos, large scale sculptures, video projects, video records of process installations, even a participatory piece…)

Honestly, I attended this show with the first-hand expectation that I was entering in a retrospective of a Bostonian/international white male artist from the 70s. This expectation was met in style notably signified (provided) by the cumbersomely long model bridges (Mexican Bridge (1998), Three Arch Dry Stack Bridge, 1⁄4 Scale (2013), Triple 21 Foot Truss Bridge 59-ft (2013), the allusions to war and violence in A Tale of Two Cities (1981), the agglomeration of submarines in All the Submarines of the United States of America (1987), the use of a 1974 Porsche in Porsche with Meteorite (2013)… It is pretty evident that the objects participating in his sculptural pieces exhaustively contribute to the bulky prodigious industrial characteristics of masculine readymade stereotypes.

Yet, I was caught unannounced when observing the ways in which Burden arranged these symbols, these objects. This obvious interest in industrial/technological methods and material spanning the U.S. adapts an unconventional and rather deeper approach when he sets his pieces up in what appears to be perpetual dichotomy: one of the encumbering bridge is adhesive-less, the allusions to war and violence in A Tale of Two Cities (1981) is represented through toys, the submarines are minuscule in size, the use of a 1974 Porsche is balanced by a small meteor. These stereotypes are consistently circumvented by another concept or object… I wondered; as an artist, what is Burden’s relationality with his masculinity/does the nature or intention of his art relate to his masculinity? As a privileged white male artist coming from the 70’s new wave of revolutionary performance aesthetic, what is his statement or subtext… But particularly, why does every blog and media platform today champion him?

I won’t answer these questions thoroughly here, but I’ll give you a little thought slurp. Burden gained his distinction back in early 70s specifically through the radical (extreme) measures adopted during his performance and sculptural pieces. Amongst his most famous works are “Shoot” (1971) (which involved his friend shooting him in the arm), “Through the Night Softly” (1973) (crawling hands tied on a floor of broken glass), and “The Big Wheel” (1979) (features a motorcycle and three ton iron wheel and is included in this exhibition; this work is said to also mark his transition from performance art with his body to sculpture).

It appears Burden throughout his artistic career continuously addressed issues in contemporary American society. Shoot sought to hold forth to the violent effect television had on its viewers; The Big Wheel juxtaposes the power, velocity, potential and energy of a modern motorcycle with that of a Industrial-Revolution-esque iron wheel… Burden explores the issues of current technology through an invested interest in the backbone technologies of separately & respectively nature, man, and nature vs. man. I want to make particular note to Jerry Saltz description the artist’s intention when he writes: “Burden’s thinking is delving into the ways we may be using the forces of nature to engineer our own extinction.” And that of Daphne Nash who writes, “The title [extreme measures] is apt; the works on view all explore the outer boundaries of perceived power and physical strength.”

Whether it be large scale sculptures, video works, temporal and spatial installation, participatory pieces (A Tale of Two Cities (1981) invited spectators to view via binoculars), Burden’s interest in nature’s physics vs. man’s engineering is consistent, his vision is consistent, and so is his ambition. It is through that consistency (putting aside his talent for coming up with simple/minimalist incendiary pieces; and the fact that he is a white international male) that the media today, just as much as the media in the 70s (Bowie referred him in a 1977 song, “Joe the Lion”), have regarded Burden’s work as distinctively impressive




Daphne Nash


One thought on “Chris Burden: Extreme Measures

  1. Hi Ludivine, I hadn’t read Jerry Saltz’s review but it’s a very interesting point of view about the artist’s intent. Thanks for the post, and the mention!

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