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What’s most compelling about Chris Burden: Extreme Measures — the Los Angeles-based artist’s first New York retrospective, which has taken over five floors of the New Museum — is what’s not there. Or almost not there.
What is almost not there, by its very nature, is his early performance work, which now exists only as text descriptions and a handful of photographs and video clips. The New Museum has gathered a chronological compilation of the texts and photos into three-ring binders, which are placed on desks in the fifth floor gallery. There are also some videos playing in the corner of the room.
These events, which took place between 1971 and 1977, courted real danger and tested real limits. The most notorious of them all, of course, is “Shoot” (November 19, 1971), in which Burden arranged to have himself shot in the left arm by a .22 caliber rifle. As reckless as it was, the piece made a crazy kind of sense against the backdrop of the Vietnam War and the political assassinations still echoing from the recently extinguished Sixties.
But “Shoot,” at least for me, is not the hardest to take of Burden’s early works, perhaps because it is over so quickly (the film clip of the shooting and its aftermath is a brisk eight seconds long) or because Burden’s reaction to being shot is so unintentionally comical — gripping his arm as he quickly trots forward, evidently in a state of shock, with a wide-legged, Chaplinesque gait.
In my book, the award for the most grueling performance goes to “Trans-fixed” (April 23, 1974). Burden’s typewritten text for the piece begins as follows:
Inside a small garage on Speedway Avenue, I stood on the rear bumper of a Volkswagen. I lay on my back over the rear section of the car, stretching my arms onto the roof. Nails were driven through my palms into the roof of the car.
The implications of this piece are much wider than “Shoot’s” plaintive political statement. Its reenactment of the Crucifixion on a Volkswagen indicts both consumerism and a cultural amnesia that transformed the Hitler-sponsored “people’s car” into Walt Disney’s Love Bug (1968). But its theatricality (“Screaming for me,” Burden continues, “the engine was run at full speed for two minutes”) and the power of its imagery — the documentary photo of the artist splayed against the roof of the car — take the work to another level, probing psychosexual recesses too tender to touch.
By driving hard nails through warm flesh into cold steel — taking literally, and to extremes, the devotional ideal expressed in Thomas à Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ (ca.1418-1427) — Burden is excavating the unspoken masochism adjoined to the pursuit of perfection. By submitting to the pressures imposed by an impossible ideal while simultaneously controlling the terms of his martyrdom and subverting it with irony, Burden’s ultimate act of self-abnegation may be seen as the ultimate act of defiance — and yet his overriding fatalism, defiant or not, leaves him in the end pinned, tortured and helpless.
It is admirable that the curators of the exhibition, Lisa Phillips, Massimiliano Gioni, Jenny Moore and Margot Norton, decided to leave the documentation of the early performances in binders on desks rather than follow the recent vogue for reenactment (who would sign up for that gig?) or otherwise “bring the performances to life.”
The documentation is extraordinarily powerful in the simplicity of its texts and photos — nothing extra is needed. The binders may be overlooked by the casual visitor, but that too bears implications for the passage of time in an artist’s career and the inherent transience of the art form.
The rest of the show is a choice selection of Burden’s big sculptures, with only a few per floor (and a single piece in the lobby), which makes for an uncluttered assessment of the artist’s concerns after his performance heyday.
Those concerns — which can be summed up as a pas de deux of vulnerability and aggression — are not surprisingly closely related to his early work. Where nails, pins and a bullet once pierced real flesh, we now have full-scale reproductions in bronze, wood, iron, steel and stone of 17th-century mortars and cannonballs (“Pair of Namur Mortars,” 2013) and a fleet of 625 cardboard model submarines (“All the Submarines of the United States of America,” 1987).
The retrospective makes the case that Burden’s work is all about power: who is wielding it, who is subject to it, and how the tide can swiftly turn. Some of the works are spectacular, such as the fourth-floor show-stopper “The Big Wheel” (1979), in which a three-ton iron flywheel is set in motion by the rear tire of a revving motorcycle, while others, like the lineup of Los Angeles police uniforms, “L.A.P.D. Uniforms” (1993), made in response to the Rodney King incident, fall flat. A couple of others, most notably “Tower of Power” (1985) — one hundred one-kilo (32-ounce) gold bricks protected by sixteen needle-toting matchstick men (and one very real security guard) — are both overproduced and painfully obvious.
But some of the more intriguing pieces, including “The Big Wheel” and “Porsche with Meteorite” (2013), in which a 365-pound meteorite holds in balance a 2,190-pound restored 1974 Porsche 914, demonstrate that a small amount of pressure, correctly applied, can withstand or upset otherwise overpowering forces (a circumstance that lends a double meaning to the exhibition’s subtitle, Extreme Measures).
That the meteorite is a heavenly body powerful enough to levitate a much heavier manmade object (and that the car, a ’74 Porsche, was produced the same year as “Trans-fixed” and that Ferdinand Porsche was tasked by Hitler with the design and production of the Volkswagen) makes you wonder how reflexively allusive Burden’s work might be.
One of the more remarkable post-performance pieces is also one that is almost not there. It is “Beam Drop,” which first took place in 1984 at Artpark, in Lewistown, New York, with later iterations at Inhotim Centro de Arte Contemporanea, in Minas Gerais, Brazil (2008), and the Middelheim Museum in Antwerp, Belgium (2009). The piece involves hoisting I-beams 100 feet into the air via crane and then dropping them into a large bed of wet concrete.
The work is documented by three videos at the exhibition, and watching the process is mesmerizing. The first few beams land safely in the concrete, tipping only slightly with plenty of space between them, but as more are added — approximately sixty in all — the danger of their striking each other, clanking and sparking and landing at precarious angles, increases dramatically. The result is a stark aggregate of fractiousness, a steel thicket manifesting a mangled beauty harnessed only by letting go.
Chris Burden: Extreme Measures continues at the New Museum (235 Bowery, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through January 12, 2014.