Ode to the Ephemeral Dead: Chris Burden @ the New Museum

Chris Burden: Extreme Measures
10/02/13 – 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.

Chris Burden, "Triple 21 Foot Truss Bridge" (2013). Photo by Giorgia Valli

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.

Chris Burden, "Tyne Bridge Kit" (2004). Photo by Giorgia Valli

Burden is a master of “high art” in quotes. His sculptural works experiment with the reconstruction of hierarchies within an established, capitalized context, yet everywhere shy away from institutional critique. I remember one work in particular…composed of stacked bags of cement, positioned like a fortress. When you looked inside the bastion, you saw stacked blocks of cement, like a seat perhaps—or maybe an unrealizable person. This latter interpretation seems more in line with the overall theme of the exhibit. It suggests an invasion into our inner lives of the weaponry and militaristic methods we use to defend our external freedoms.

Burden’s response to the pervasiveness of militarism in our society is not the “dematerialization of the object” of conceptualism, which could lead to transformative action, but that of the nihilist philosopher who refuses to look past the world’s material structures as science defines them. Consider “America,” which is a hyper-modeling of every US submarine that existed in 1987, each tiny ship hanging from a wire, like a locust swarm suspended in glycerin. The installation encloses the viewer like an environment: similar to a memorial wall, but not so much that the context of the gallery is lost sight of. The work is not about site, or place, but about the dialectic of permanence and impermanence: more concretely, of the authority of administered precedent versus individual agency. One can easily tear down the model ships, but the memorial lettering would still remain—a list abstracted from any concrete reference, a monolith dedicated to the productivity of power that labors beyond personal agency or conscience.

Chris Burden, "L.A.P.D. Uniforms" (1993). Photo by Benoit Pailley

"Tower of Power" (1985) and "L.A.P.D. Uniforms" (1993) continue Burden’s commentary on individual agency versus administration. "Tower of Power" is a pyramid made of gold bars, encased in glass and surrounded with matchstick guards. The exhibit itself, however, was protected by real security guards at the New Museum, and real security precautions to ensure that the exhibit would in no way be tampered with. The world-within-a-world quality of the piece, which only seems to belie that conditions that sustain it, was echoed in the police uniforms that adorned the walls in one corner of the exhibit. These uniforms were emptied of personality: they were units, merely, like massive commodities from a design factory, or cookie men cut from cookie dough. They were large, looming and scary; but this viewer couldn’t imagine with any particularity the kind of monsters that could fill them. "L.A.P.D Uniforms" had the sublimity of a dinosaur skeleton: an essential part of humanity’s prehistory, but not necessarily a defining characteristic of contemporary experience.

Chris Burden, "Porsche with Meteorite" (2013). Photo by Benoit Pailley

Burden’s purer sculptural work seems intended to convey a sheer joy in construction. His "Porsche with Meteorite" (2013) balanced a restored ’77 Porsche against a meteorite of equal weight, as though natural law were ultimately the origin of human design. The question was one of balance, of space and bulk, and also the ubiquity of energies which makes art possible. Something in Burden goes beyond reference to cultural mores, grounding our experience in the cosmic, not in a mythic but in a scientific sense. Does the hopefulness of human agency enter into his work? The overall absence of distinguishing characteristics in Burden’s artifacts, their lack of any defining signature, answers this question in the negative before it’s even asked.

Jeff Grunthaner

Lost in the Gallery-Industrial Complex via NYT

January 17, 2014

A new year. A new New York mayor. Old problems with art in New York. I have a collection of complaints and a few (very few) ideas for change.

Money — the grotesque amounts spent, the inequitable distribution — has dominated talk about art in the 21st century so far. It’s a basic fact of art history. Emperors, popes and robber barons set the model for the billionaire buyers of today. Of course, it is today that matters to the thousands of artists who live and work in this punitively expensive city, where the art industry is often confused with the art world. Continue reading

World’s Military Budget Tops All Others As Women Call for Peace

World’s Military Budget Tops All Others as Women Call for Peace

Over $1 trillion annually, worldwide military spending far exceeds anything else in our austerity era, including that of the UN peacekeeping budget (a fraction of the former at a mere $7.9 million).  This depressing statistic can be found almost midway through the press release announcing the 53-piece exhibit, Women Call for Peace: Global Vistas, on view until Dec. 10, 2013, at the Anya and Andrew Shiva Gallery, John Jay College, CUNY*, 59th St. & 11th Ave., in Manhattan.

What does the U.S. — which monopolizes almost half of the world’s military market — get for that exorbitant price?

For U.S. military women, the rate of rape triples to 70 rapes per day — 3 rapes every hour.  (The Pentagon also admits that women’s suicide rate in the U.S. military triples as well.)

As bad as this scenario is, elsewhere in the world for women can be even worse.  One of the most striking works of art in the exhibit — “Little Red,” by Marcia Annenberg — highlights this reality, though one would have had to attend the artists’ discussion to obtain the essential backstory inspired by the BBC website, and fully understand and feel the piece.  It conveys the horrific story of 13-year-old Somalian Aisha Ibrahim Duhulow, who was raped on the way to visit her grandmother, and after it was reported to the police, arrested and stoned to death in a stadium for the crime of having pre-marital sex, because the fundamentalist Islamic group Al-Shabab controlled her town.


woman call for peace1


Continue reading

Another Venetian tour in three parts by Lee Klein

The 55th Biennale d’Arte di Venezia
June 6 – November 24, 2013

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Another Venetian tour in three parts
by Lee Klein

For Sir Anthony Caro the 2013 55th edition of the Venice Biennale was to be his finale, for the Maldives forecasters have predicted impending doom in the form of an over wash (and their spillover here was to be competing exhibitions), do we taste the scent of our demise as Hemingway once did fish?

Welcome to La Serenissima 2013 seventy degrees plus Fahrenheit in November in NYC the once mighty Christine Quinn was going, going, about to be gone (at least from public office) in the Piazza San Marco the Marc Quinn was gone as well.

The first part of main exhibit in the Arsenale, curated by the New York situated Italian curator and associate director of the New Museum of Contemporary art, Massimiliano Gioni offered large sections of many of the included artists work in spaces within a space redone by the architect Annabel Selldorf….But this was the “Encyclopedia of the Mind”, based on the architectural model for an impossible dream never realized by the late Italian born Pennsylvanian American resident, Marino Auriti., The aforementioned practitioner whose original piece was placed here as this exhibition’s centerpiece at its entrance would if alive have seen his attempt at a mad caveat mixed in with contemporary art, instillations, curiosities and artifacts. The exhibition meanwhile meant to be frivolous (which it tended to be more so of in the Italian pavilion) as it continued here in the Arsenale was a bit heavy; especially so when it came to whole huge chambers filled with works like “The Venetians” by Pawel Althamer.

While the life masks attached to the Pole’s blue wiry metal skeletons were very effective, it became a huge monochromatic assembly, wherein one could get lost before beginning to get ahold of this whole thing. Here say marrying John Ahearn to kinetic art it might trounce the memory of more sublime efforts, though through and through it was lyrical in its moments as well (as if were any of the Venetians he had chosen some of the same Venetians you had seen on the streets and the canals of city by the sea as in you have two artistic subjects in common).

Here in the historic boat parking lot whole sections were given over to rising art world phenoms like the Vietnamese born Danish performance art influenced instillation artist, Danh Vo and Phyllidia Barlow’s hanging detritus. Specifically the British art professor who left academe to pursue her own work piece’s blended right in with the scarred walls of the Arsenale. The segue had this oft voyaging re-canter thinking of our very own Shalom Neuman.. He who has very often offered the word “Fusion” for interdisciplinary work which attempts to well seamlessly well fuse (though more aptly converge and the Italian creation Fusionisimo works wonders) but these were at a broader confluence it is very much easier at close range in a Veruschka type of way Rothko , seamless.