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Architecture of the Absurd: Chris Burden’s Madcap Acts of Engineering (with video)

Chris Burden's "Ghost Ship," 2005, and "Twin Quasi Legal Skyscrapers," 2013, on the façade and roof of the New Museum Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Chris Burden’s “Ghost Ship,” 2005, and “Twin Quasi Legal Skyscrapers,” 2013, on the façade and roof of the New Museum
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

In his early career, Chris Burden was a provocative performance artist, best known for his 1971 “Shoot,” where he instructed a friend to shoot him in his arm (as you can see in this disturbing video).

Now that he’s involved in sculptural works and monumental installations, he’s perhaps best known for his popular Urban Light, 2008, an alluring army of 202 restored cast-iron antique street lamps that animate the entrance of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s campus.

This quickly achieved the status of beloved LA landmark:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

With his retrospective—Chris Burden: Extreme Measures—opening at the New Museum tomorrow (to Jan. 12), his signature work in New York may soon become “The Big Wheel,” wherein a 1968 Benelli motorcycle’s rotating rear tire improbably activates a three-ton, cast-iron flywheel. This is scheduled to happen twice each day, at 11:30 and 2:30 p.m. and also on Thursdays at 6:30 p.m. As you will experience in the video below, it’s something to see.

Burden studied architecture and physics in college and his father was an engineer, all of which helps to explain how he was able to conceptualize and successfully realize the variety of ingenious, outlandish constructions and installations that are arrayed at the New Museum, which devoted its entire building to this, Burden’s first New York survey and first major U.S. exhibition in over 25 years, organized by the museum’s director, Lisa Phillips, with an assist from director of exhibitions Massimiliano Gioni, fresh from his bravura performance as director of this year’s Venice Biennale.

What I don’t understand is how Burden managed to come by the 100 one-kilo gold bars (valued at about $4 million, according to a museum staffer) that constitute the closely guarded 1985 “Tower of Power” pyramid (which we were not permitted to photograph). It looms over 16 miniature acolytes, fancifully crafted from matchsticks. Is this the precursor to Damien Hirst‘s diamond skull?

Burden’s astonishing performance pieces with which he made his mark in the 1970s are shortshrifted here, as if to put all that behind him. They’re documented in several binders of photographs on the 5th floor, but upstaged by the contraptions and contrivances on the floors below.

But back to “The Big Wheel.” Here it is in full flight, after a motorcycle rider (Joshua Edwards, who doubles as the museum’s director of exhibition management) revved up the engine.


Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

This photo doesn’t begin to capture the suspenseful attempt to get the Benelli’s balky 45-year-old engine going. For a while, as the scribe tribe gathered expectantly at today’s preview, it looked like this launch was going to fizzle.

Come join me now as we anxiously await ignition and takeoff. You’ll hear a snippet of snippy commentary from Peter Schjeldahl, the New Yorker‘s art critic, who had told me before this drama began that he had previously seen “Big Wheel,” decades ago, at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. You can catch a glimpse of Peter watching the action near the end of this video:

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