The Impossible Works of Chris Burden – The New York Times

The death of Chris Burden in 2015, aged just 69, ended one of the most protean and captivating artistic 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 point-blank range with a rifle (the harrowing 1971 “Shoot”), or sliding on broken glass, almost naked, hands behind his head. return (“Through the Night Softly”, from 1973). Later, he focused his attention on whimsical, almost insanely complex installations, such as a 65-foot-tall tower constructed from replica parts of the Erector Set. at Rockefeller Center in New York (“What My Dad Gave Me” from 2008) and a group of 202 vintage streetlights 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 lay out the foundations of a museum, and built a sculpture out of borrowed gold bricks, still determined to examine – with a beady eye and childlike wonder. – the power relations, technology and systems that enable society to function.

The museum’s exhibits traced some of Burden’s history. But many of his visions remain little known, never having been realized because of budgetary, logistical or bureaucratic constraints. An exciting new book from Gagosianwhich 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 British World War II destroyer into a sailing ship (blocked by pricing and conservation issues), a request to hang a fishing boat on the side of the Seattle Art Museum (meeted “vehement objections” from the building’s architect, according to Burden), and a plan to put in orbit of a replica Sputnik satellite (blocked by all that a rocket launch entailed).

“We wanted to honor the time, mental space, energy, effort and intelligence that went into bringing these unrealized projects to fruition,” says Yayoi Shionoiri, Executive Director of the Burden Estate and Studio of the wife of the artist, the adventurous sculptor Nancy Rubins. Drawing sketches and correspondence from Burden’s archives, the volume offers a moving story of his life and rare insight into the complex research and negotiations that creating ambitious, large-scale art often entails.

Some Burden collaborators still speak sadly of the ideas that never really succeeded. In the mid-1990s, when curator and designer Peter Noever invited Burden to propose an exhibition for the MAK Museum of Applied Arts in Vienna, of which Noever was director, the artist “was more radical than I could imagine. “, he said with approval. Burden wanted to transport around 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 his final stop. Shipping containers would be part of the show. Never figured out how to do it all, but the cost was immense, he says, adding: “Once you understand it’s possible, then you don’t understand why it’s not possible. In the end, it was only for a stupid financial reason, which is not an excuse. Instead, the MAK performed a more conventional spectacle which included Burden’s “Flying Steamroller” (1996), a sculpture consisting of a 12-tonne steamroller gliding through the air after picking up speed, thanks to a swivel arm and a counterweight. The museum had to reinforce its floors to install it, a boundary crossing that distills Burden’s philosophy. “If the art is contemporary, then it has to hurt – it has to hurt you,” Noever says when discussing this process, “because otherwise it’s just a game.”

Architecture isn’t all that Burden tested. His unrealized pieces defy politics, law and even physics. A never Burning American Flag” that he planned to patent and sell to the Marines (to lead into battle, “frighten the enemy”) would have been a perfect target for Fox News outrage. (For what it’s worth, in a 2009 cartoon, in the middle of the Iraq War, he called it “a super patriotic flag.”) “There were a lot of good leads, but there were no safe path”, says the artist. Mary Anne Friel, who spoke to combustion experts and investigated high-tech textiles and fuel sources while on staff at the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia to try to bring the piece into existence , until the nonprofit asks him to pull the plug. “We didn’t even know if it was possible,” she says, “and it’s always like that.”

Security concerns have been raised at least once about a piece Burden offered for a 1988 survey at what is now the Orange County Museum of Art in California, and other locations over the years. years. His idea: to chain large metal plates to a rotating pole that would make them spin. For curator Paul Schimmel, who co-organized this exhibition, “it wasn’t really feasible as he had originally conceived it. But in the same way that he pushed the limits of his own body in terms of performance, he really wanted to push sculpting to the limits of engineering. (Surprisingly, Burden left no plans for unrealized performances, critic Donatien Grau notes in an essay in the book, which was edited by Sydney Stutterheim and Andie Trainer, both of Gagosian. After staging around fifty performances, he left this medium behind.)

Burden’s art can seem to straddle a subversive gray area between irony and seriousness. Shionoiri thinks Burden was sincere when he pitched even his fanciest notions, but says there’s ‘this sense that he’s ‘trying to push the boundaries of what an institution can or can’t do’ “. rigor to bear on the remote Topanga Canyon, California property he and Rubin called home, and where his widow continues to work. He laid out a narrow-gauge railway that would travel through the mountainous terrain via Erector bridges and tunnels. By installing various works there, he aims to establish what he calls “Chrisville.

One of Burden’s greatest obstacles seems to have been simply the limited time available to even the most enterprising artist. “Chris was extraordinary in that way, honest to God, he woke up every morning almost like the way children wake up in the morning and they had dreams,” Schimmel says. He believes ‘Chrisville’ paved the way for ‘Xanadu’, a stunning end-of-career environment Burden worked on from 2008 to 2015, in which he collected his Erector towers, streetlights and other works – a kind of a great summary of some of his end interests. He launched different iterations of it in a few places; none were built.

During the last months of his life, as he was dying of cancer, Burden wrote and sketched in a small notebook Rubins gave him, recording 18 concepts he hadn’t 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’s the latest entry in “Poetic Practical” – which, like all of Burden’s life, sends a clear message to artists: don’t hold back, because even unmade art can be unforgettable.

The publication of the book marks something of a closure, but Shionoiri mentions that the estate has been carefully evaluating what work it might still be able to complete. One is “When Robots Rule: The Two-Minute Plane Factory”, a complex machine designed by Burden to automatically build and launch fast-paced toy planes described in the title. It didn’t work properly, but he still exhibited the device at London’s Tate Britain in 1999 as an intriguing and, in its own way, effective sculpture. While respecting its artistic intent, the estate experimented with new tools, like open source coding and improved glue, to make it work, Shionoiri says. “I don’t want to jinx it because we’re not close yet,” she says, “but it’s actually an ongoing project.”

“Poetic Practice: The Unrealized Work of Chris Burden” (284 pp., $120) is available at the Gagosian store at 976 Madison Avenue in New York, a new pop-up bookstore in London’s Burlington Arcade and in line.

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