Ode to the Ephemeral Dead: Chris Burden @ the New Museum
Chris Burden: Extreme Measures10/02/13 – 1/12/14
New Museum of Contemporary Art 235 Bowery New York, NY 10002
The web-content coincident with Chris Burden’s Extreme Measures retrospective has a kind of popularly accessible, pleb aspect about it. For an artist like Chris Burden—whose earliest and arguably most important works were notoriously ephemeral—this observation becomes more significant than would be the case with other artists of his generation. There’s a part of Burden’s sensibility that revels in showcasing cracks in reality’s surface, authenticating the enumeration of lists that expose the hierarchical structures underpinning individual agency. But one should also be mindful of Burden’s use of abstraction, of the ambiguous process whereby he dissolves the individual into the abstract, and sensuous particulars into standardized, quantifiable units. In the work "Triple 21 Foot Truss Bridge" (2013), for instance, design dissolves into a schizoid erector-set structure, potentially endless and wholly monotonous. This effect is deliberate on Burden’s part, and matches the trajectory of his work throughout his career, which was always directed toward making his audience feel very, very uncomfortable.
But is it worth it? On the New Museum’s website, Burden’s "Ghost Ship" (2005) comes off like an element of expressive minutia imbedded into the gestural calligraphy of a Christopher Wool canvas—an artist destined to fill the Guggenheim’s seven floors concurrently with Burden’s no less modest five-floor show. Long after docking off the coast of England, Burden’s "Ghost Ship" appears moored over the grim vista of downtown NYC. Significantly, this work was constructed in collaboration with the Marine Engineering Department of the University of Southampton; and many of the works included in Extreme Measures had their origins in design, even in a sort of logical postivism. One notes how the vaguely embossed lettering advertising the New Museum gives considered perspective to the ghost ship, speaking volumes to the place of Chris Burden’s art within the context of the museum, as well as the greater social landscape of the surrounding city.
There’s a vestigial quality to Burden’s work, which seems to slip away from directed attention the very moment it comes under exacting focus. Like a diaspora which diffusely contains divergent, even incomparable media—text, the foundational laws of physics, the bleakness of secular protest, transformer dolls, obsessively wrought erector sets—many works throughout the exhibit engaged process to such an extent that they all but disappeared, presenting now in sculptural forms, now in the temporal form of video, a fragmented vision of human ingenuity which verged on the grotesque more than the humorous. The mixed-media "Tyne Bridge Kit" (2004) is a rather marvelous instance of this. This work is basically a desk, its drawers filled with a vast number of erector set parts. Styled like the mirror of a dresser, a photograph displays a number of professional-looking persons enjoying a completed erector-set structure in a large corporate space, the design of which is as modern as it is sterile, with artificial and natural light garishly mingling. "Tyne Bridge Kit" is a work of arrant nihilism, and lovely in this respect. All it offers is a boring life, tricked out in nauseating luxury.