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.
Memories So Fair and Bright
Kimetha Vanderveen’s paintings are about the interaction of materiality and light, the bond between the palpable and ephemeral world in which we live.
Artists Contemplate Sovereignty in Santa Fe
The Santa Fe Art Institute’s 2024 International Thematic Residency focuses on what sovereignty means for artists from across the world.
When I Am Empty Please Dispose of Me Properly
Ayanna Dozier, Ilana Harris-Babou, Meena Hasan, Lucia Hierro, Catherine Opie, Chuck Ramirez, and Pacifico Silano explore the myths of the American Dream at Brooklyn’s BRIC House.
How Did Early Modern European Craftspeople Pass On Their Knowledge?
A new book about object making critically examines a written history of working with materials.
Dual Portrait of Old Master Rachel Ruysch Holds a Trove of Secrets
The Metropolitan Museum of Art has just acquired the rare painting, which depicts the Dutch artist at work surrounded by her signature flora.
Pratt’s 2023 Fine Arts MFA Thesis Exhibition Is On View in Brooklyn
The two-part exhibition features the work of 41 graduating artists across disciplines, including painting, sculpture, printmaking, and integrated practices.
Did Van Gogh’s Disdain for the Eiffel Tower Inspire “Starry Night”?
Art historian James Hall argues that van Gogh replaced the Eiffel Tower with a towering cypress tree and its inaugural light shows with the night sky.
Greek Museum Welcomes Dogs For World Stray Animal Day
Furry friends and their pawrents can visit Athens’s National Museum of Contemporary Art for free this weekend.
The Milton Resnick and Pat Passlof Foundation Presents The Feminine in Abstract Painting
Curated by Jennifer Samet and Andrea Belag, this group exhibition in NYC explores the feminine through aesthetics, as opposed to identity or gender.
Ai Weiwei Recreates Monet’s “Water Lilies” Using 650,000 LEGOS
It’s the artist’s largest LEGO artwork to date.
Did a Simpsons Episode Predict the Florida “David” Outrage?
The episode, which aired 30 years ago, made a dark prediction about conservative politics in 2023.
NYU Steinhardt Opens 2023 MFA Thesis Exhibitions
Taking place at 80WSE Gallery in New York’s Greenwich Village, Part I is on view from late March through April while Part II opens in May.
Coasting the Topography of South Asian Futurisms
As part of Hyperallergic’s Emily Hall Tremaine Journalism Fellowship for Curators, Sadaf Padder presents an exhibition to offer insight into her curatorial process.
I’m a Florida Drag Queen and I’m Scared
I’m truly at a loss for what to do for work and what kind of life I can expect to live.
I feel so sorry for that Porsche.
Chris’ work has been consistent in theme yet wide on format. His concerns from the first locker piece performance forward have echoed the same vision. Very good review of the overall arch and focus of his career.
“My objections are twofold. First, the supposition that “extra” documentation is even available to us ignores the essence of Burden’s early 1970s body art.(1) That we get deskilled photographs and grainy,
badly edited film footage is miraculous enough but it won’t come close to the actual experience of the pieces. Second, rather than referring to the “transience” of this form of art we would be better served by defining them as the practitioners did: actions of durational temporality enacted by artists. Yes, they were “temporary” but to use that word to describe Burden’s art vaguely implies that his body art pieces were possibly exhibited at another time. To represent these pieces as “transient” then is to confuse them with traditional art forms that can be simply restaged in another place…”
Read more at http://theorynow.blogspot.com/2013/10/a-burden-is-transient.html
The irony of the 70’s performance art works is that the debris left from these events has become the event, the “art”. These relics were never meant to play that role.
As it was never meant to be “exhibited” in the traditional fashion, performance was then an ephemeral genre. Chris’ early works had few viewers but the word of mouth established it. He has moved back into a more traditional vain of sculpture while keeping his concerns intact.
Comments are closed.