Chris Burden: Scaling up, scaling down
December 15, 2013
Big Wheel (1979)

Mention Chris Burden's name, and one of the first images that will likely pop into an art history student's mind is an archival image from Burden's 1974 performance, Trans-fixed -- a skinny, half-naked artist being crucified to a Volkswagen beetle.  As a seminal performance artist in the early 1970s, Burden experimented with his own physical limits, where putting himself in imminent danger was a critical aspect of his practice.

Since then, Burden has recalibrated.  As his career developed, Burden continued to experiment with space and sense of scale, but focused his process and output on sculptures and installation pieces.  His retrospective at the New Museum, Chris Burden: Extreme Measures, focuses on some of these works.  On the larger end of the spectrum are works such as Big Wheel (1979) (seen above) on the fourth floor of the museum, a lumbering giant steel wheel set up near a motorcycle.  Twice a day, the motorcycle is revved up, setting the wheel to spin on its own for over two hours.

Also on the fourth floor is Porsche with Meteorite (2013), a gigantic scales of justice-like structure where a shiny yellow Porsche—perhaps a stand-in for the pinnacle of manmade technological innovation—is balanced against a chunk of organic matter.  

Not only does Burden pit human ingenuity against natural forces, he also plays with the variability of measurement.  The third floor of the museum features Burden as engineering otaku—constructing models of bridges (Triple 21 Foot Truss Bridge (2013) and Three Arch Dry Stack Bridge, ¼ Scale (2013)) and cannons (Pair of Namur Mortars (2013)) modeled from the originals at the Tower of London.

Burden’s monomaniacal focus on the microcosm is evident in two works shown on the second floor of the museum, A Tale of Two Cities (1981) and All the Submarines of the United States of America (1987).  The first is a veritable diorama of two cities in a constant state of war preparation, represented by figurines, transformer toys and vehicles.  The next hangs 625 submarine figures from the ceiling, lining up the small cardboard objects to create a sheet-like physical intervention.

A Tale of Two Cities


One of the smallest but perhaps most powerful works in the exhibition is Tower of Power (1985).  It’s a process and experience in and of itself to view, as only one visitor is permitted to see the work at a time, complete with externally hired security to provide surveillance of the scene.  (Photos were not permitted, although an image of the work can be found here.)  The work is comprised of 100 gold bars twinkling behind thick plexiglass; near the bottom of the gold pyramid are matchstick men in various poses.  The New Museum’s unique architecture (designed by SANAA) is put to good use in the work’s display method, as the viewer must climb the set of stairs between the third and fourth floors to peer into an alcove, paying tribute to the work and its possible message.  Perhaps more so than the actual work itself, the ritual surrounding the viewing of the work indicates the relationship of the museumgoer to the art and cultural production apparatus, of which the museum is very much a part.

Chris Burden: Extreme Measures is up until January 12, 2014.