Chris Burden is one of the legendary giants of performance art. In his seminal body pieces from the early 1970s, he orchestrated a series of daredevil brutalities and tests of the body’s resilience. Burden has had a more prolonged career, however, as a large-scale installation artist who masterminds feats of engineering that seem divorced from the body: scaled-down replicas of major bridges, a giant scale that weighs Burden’s own Porsche against a meteorite, replicated cop uniforms too large to fit a human body. Both of these styles of work are currently on view in the New Museum’s Burden retrospective, Extreme Measures. The show tracks Burden’s transition from performance to installation—from a focus on the body’s resilience in the tension of an extreme moment, toward static objects severed from the experience of lived reality.
There has always been a strong element of science present in Burden’s work. His performance pieces test the limits of technology against the body. Burden’s installation work, on the other hand, is a series of projects in physics and engineering that test a man’s ability to re-create technology. I use the word “technology” to refer specifically to those 19th-century analog tools dominated by a socially masculine energy: concrete, electricity, fire, gunpowder. Burden’s work progresses from a measurement of the man-made against the man, toward a measurement of the social conscription of the masculine (that is, our idea of the “man”) against that which is man-made. Maleness, in Burden’s installations, is a questionable subject, fraught and fragile despite its posturing.
His sculptures read as socially masculine, explicitly dealing in that stereotypical boyhood fascination with construction, transportation, war, and violence. Burden makes adult-size children’s toys for man-sized boys. Benign replicas take on an air of menace as Burden renders toys of war and constructions of physics life-size. Everything in the museum takes on a terrifying quality, too big for the space to contain it. On the second floor, Burden has constructed a giant cast-iron flywheel that spins at a staggeringly high RPM as someone revs the engine of a motorcycle in gear, suspended several feet from the ground (The Big Wheel, 1979). My friend told me a story about the first time the piece was exhibited. In the hangar-sized gallery where it was shown, there was no system in place to dispel the exhaust from the running motorcycle. The gallery became a carbon monoxide trap and guests practically asphyxiated. The Big Wheel at the New Museum is outfitted with a ventilation pipe connected to a small window, and instead of a brutal death trap, the wheel is now simply a terrifying display of kinetic energy.
All these hinted threats are characteristic of an overt obsession with oversized masculinity, and are striking in light of Burden’s performance work. I never used to read it as hyper-gendered. His early performance stunts indeed take for granted his able-bodied, white maleness as a kind of neutral position, and arguably rely on the resources he is afforded by this position. But for me, the work seemed to be about a kind of extremity and mental illness that read as so human, especially in contrast with a career’s worth of installations that have become the art world’s Universal Studios.
What I initially found productive about Burden’s work was his willingness to push to its furthest point the limits of sanity as experienced through the body. Burden’s work now seems to be about enlargement, engorgement—another kind of “extreme” feat, as the exhibition’s title betrays. But there is a difference between a feat that is challenging and one that is subversive. Burden blows up maleness—he blows up what is already blown up, what is already too big.
Many of the acts Burden commits in his video reel are about pushing beyond the durational experience of the body; they are attempts to reach a kind of transcendence. These actions (instructing his friend to shoot him in the arm at close range, nailing himself to a Volkswagen Beetle, crawling through broken glass on national television, setting fire to two glass shelves soaked in gasoline attached to his shoulders) are read as “crazy.” Burden’s work upon his own body is about reaching a far-off point, about approaching extremes. Burden went so far that other artists have been unsuccessfully trying to overtake him for years. He relates in an audio interview on the museum’s top floor the well-known story of his student at UCLA coming to class on critique day with a loaded revolver, intent on playing Russian roulette. The incident caused Burden to resign from his position at the university.
All this must be juxtaposed with where Burden now seeks to direct the sterile order of his engineered re-creations. Perhaps one reaches a point in this practice where subversion becomes too dangerous—not for oneself, but for others. This is Burden’s real kind of limit. The daredevil actions of Burden’s performances existed in a vacuum, the major threat being his own potential for self-harm. But when applied as pedagogy, the Burden brand of madness spreads like wildfire, goes out of control, becomes destructive. Burden’s installations make games latent with cultural violence, but they are only games now. They are cartoonish, oversized, non-threatening even in their potential for danger—a good show for kids to take their dads to.
Chris Burden: Extreme Measures will be on view at the New Museum through January 12, 2014.