Chris Burden’s Impossible Artworks – The New York Times
Chris Burden’s death in 2015, at only 69, ended one of the most protean and captivating art careers of the past half-century. In the early 1970s, he created now-legendary works using his own body by having a friend shoot him in the arm at close range with a rifle (1971’s harrowing “Shoot”), or slithering across broken glass, nearly naked, hands behind his back (“Through the Night Softly,” from 1973). In later years, he focused his attention on whimsical, almost impossibly intricate installations, like a 65-foot-tall tower constructed out of replica Erector Set parts at New York’s Rockefeller Center (2008’s “What My Dad Gave Me”) and a cluster of 202 vintage street lamps in front of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (“Urban Light,” also from 2008). Along the way, he built elaborate model bridges, dug trenches to expose a museum’s foundation and constructed a sculpture from borrowed gold bricks, always intent on examining — with both a gimlet eye and childlike wonder — power relations, technology and the systems that allow society to function.
Museum exhibitions have charted some of Burden’s story. But many of his visions remain little known, having never been completed because of the constraints of budgets, logistics or bureaucracies. An exhilarating new book from Gagosian, which has represented the artist since 1978, “Poetic Practical: The Unrealized Work of Chris Burden,” details more than 60 of them. They include an effort to convert a World War II British destroyer into a ship with sails (blocked by price and preservation issues), an application to hang a fishing boat on the side of the Seattle Art Museum (met with “vehement objections” from the building’s architect, according to Burden) and a plan to put a Sputnik satellite replica into orbit (stymied by all that a rocket launch involved).
“We wanted to honor the amount of time, mind space, energy, efforts and brains that went into attempting to make these unrealized projects,” says Yayoi Shionoiri, the executive director of both the Burden estate and the studio of the artist’s wife, the venturesome sculptor Nancy Rubins. Pulling sketches and correspondence from Burden’s archives, the volume offers a moving history of his life and a rare glimpse of the complex research and negotiations that creating ambitious large-scale art often entails.
Some Burden collaborators still speak mournfully of the ideas that never quite made it. In the mid-1990s, when the curator and designer Peter Noever invited Burden to propose an exhibition for Vienna’s MAK Museum of Applied Arts, where Noever was the director, the artist “was more radical than I could imagine,” he says approvingly. Burden wanted to transport about 200 tons of his art to the Austrian capital by water, a journey that would have involved flooding a dry canal near the building for its final leg. The shipping containers would be part of the show. Noever worked out how to do it all, but the cost was immense, he says, adding, “Once you understand it is possible, then you don’t understand why it is not possible. In the end, it was only for a stupid financial reason, which is not an excuse.” Instead, the MAK presented a more conventional show that included Burden’s “Flying Steamroller” (1996), a sculpture that consists of a 12-ton steamroller gliding through the air after working up speed, thanks to a pivoting arm and counterweight. The museum had to reinforce its floors to install it, a pushing of boundaries that distilled Burden’s philosophy. “If art is contemporary, then it has to hurt — it has to hurt you,” Noever says while discussing that process, “because otherwise it’s only a game.”
Architecture is not all that Burden stress tested. His unrealized pieces challenge politics, the law and even physics. An “Ever Burning American Flag” that he foresaw patenting and selling to the Marines (to carry into battle, “spooking the enemy”) would have been a perfect target for Fox News outrage. (For what it’s worth, in a drawing from 2009, amid the Iraq War, he called it “a super patriotic flag.”) “There were a lot of good leads, but there wasn’t any sure path,” says the artist Mary Anne Friel, who spoke with combustion experts and investigated high-tech textiles and fuel sources while on staff at Philadelphia’s Fabric Workshop and Museum to try to bring the piece into existence, until the nonprofit had her pull the plug. “It was unknown whether it was even possible,” she says, “and that’s how it still is.”
Safety concerns were raised at least once about a piece Burden proposed for a 1988 survey at what is now the Orange County Museum of Art in California, and for other venues over the years. His idea: chain large metal plates to a rotating pole that would send them spinning. In the view of the curator Paul Schimmel, who co-organized that show, “It wasn’t really doable as he originally conceived it. But in the same way that he pushed the boundaries of his own body in terms of performance, he really wanted to push sculpture to the boundaries of engineering.” (Intriguingly, Burden left no plans for unrealized performances, the critic Donatien Grau notes in an essay in the book, which was edited by Sydney Stutterheim and Andie Trainer, both of Gagosian. After staging some 50 performances, he left that medium behind.)
Burden’s art can seem to straddle a subversive gray area between irony and earnestness. Shionoiri believes that Burden was sincere when pitching even his most fantastical notions, but says that there is “this sense of him ‘attempting to push the limitations of what an institution can or can’t do.’” The artist also planned to bring that rigor to bear on the remote property in Topanga Canyon, Calif., that he and Rubin called home, and where his widow continues to work. He plotted out a narrow-gauge railway that would move through the mountainous terrain via Erector bridges and tunnels. By installing various works there, he aimed to establish what he called “Chrisville.”
One of Burden’s greatest obstacles appears to have been quite simply the finite amount of time that even the most enterprising artist has. “Chris was extraordinary in that, honest to God, he would wake up every morning almost like how kids wake up in the morning and they’ve had dreams,” says Schimmel. He thinks “Chrisville” paved the way for “Xanadu,” an astonishing late-career environment that Burden worked on from 2008 to 2015, in which he united his Erector towers, streetlights and other works — a kind of grand summation of some of his final interests. He pitched different iterations of it to a few places; none has been built.
In the last months of his life, as he was dying of cancer, Burden wrote and drew in a small notebook that Rubins gave him, recording 18 concepts that he had not seen through. On its purple cover he wrote a frankly heartbreaking title: “Idea Book #1: For New + Old Sculptures + Other Ideas So I Don’t Forget.” It is the final entry in “Poetic Practical” — which, like Burden’s entire life, imparts a clarion message to artists: Do not hold back, because even art that remains unmade can be unforgettable.
The book’s publication marks a kind of closure, but Shionoiri mentions that the estate has been carefully evaluating what works it might still be able to complete. One is “When Robots Rule: The Two-Minute Airplane Factory,” an intricate machine that Burden conceived to automatically construct and launch toy airplanes at the rapid pace described in the title. It didn’t function properly, but he still displayed the apparatus at Tate Britain in London in 1999 as an intriguing and, in its own way, effective piece of sculpture. While hewing to his artistic intent, the estate has been experimenting with new tools, like open-source coding and improved glue, to make it operational, Shionoiri says. “I don’t want to jinx it because we’re not close — yet,” she says, “but it is actually an ongoing project.”
“Poetic Practical: The Unrealized Work of Chris Burden” (284 pp., $120) is available at Gagosian’s 976 Madison Avenue shop in New York, a new pop-up bookstore in Burlington Arcade in London and online.