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.
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.
"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.
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.