Chris Burden

by Donald Goddard

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It is possible to play with the laws of physics, such as they are. After all, Chris Burden is still alive after putting himself in jeopardy several times and there are still bridges standing. Maybe that's what an artist is--someone who gets away with it, sometimes. Maybe it's just luck or a kind of contingent intelligence that keeps things from completely self-destructing, as, for instance, the sight in 1979 of 50,000 American nickels and matchsticks representing 50,000 Soviet tanks taking up a space on a floor of the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., that was formerly open to walk on, counterpoised by the idea of Burden's title, The Reason for the Neutron Bomb, inscribed on the perimeter window, which takes up a different kind of space--mental, emotional, conceptual. Or the recognition that the contrivances of civilization occupy a rather thin layer, as exemplified by Exposing the Foundation of the Museum of 1986-88, in which stairways lead down into the brown, undifferentiated earth under the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, beneath a floor that has been stripped away.

Human beings seem to be aware that disaster may result from not conforming to nature, or our conception of nature, but how do we know unless we push the limits, or what we think are the limits. The smallest work in the show, 1/4 Ton Bridge, is composed of 700 Erector set parts and accompanied by a color photograph called Static Test, in which several industrial bags of materials are seen piled on the little bridge structure. The bridge holds up, but it appears that the bridge's base on the left side is under stress and slightly tilted. It's not perfect, but it still stands up. Everything else in the show appears to be perfect, the huge Tyne Bridge and ten other pieces, but then, of course, they are only models or replicas, not real bridges subject to a tremendous variety of forces. Still, when you look down the roadbed of the Tyne Bridge there are some waverings that might be problematic.

Replicating, or interpreting, the real world is not so easy. In the case of Burden's two big bridges (the other one is called Curved Bridge and doesn't seem to be a bridge at all in that it only has an arch with no roadbed) it takes thousands of hours, a crew of many people engaged with great enthusiasm, detailed plans, and thousands of parts that have to be custom-made. And what do you end up with? Something that has no function except to extend from here to there. They might be taken as lessons in how to build a bridge, but you can't really do it this way. You can only build models. (In fact, Burden offers two extremely large and beautifully wrought wood cabinets full of Meccano parts and instructions from which you can build your own Tyne Bridge.) A wonderful conceit is that Tyne Bridge was originally commissioned for and shown in the Baltic Centre of Contemporary Art in Gateshead, England, and through the window one could see the real bridge over the Tyne River as an echo, in exactly the same profile. As in the relationship between a portrait and the real person it portrays, the work of art represents a kind of mock complexity, a suggestion of what might be there without the possibility of being imprinted by actual experience, except that which the artist understands at one remove. These bridges are for the eyes and the mind, not for the wind or cars or rain or any of the sounds and other immediate effects associated with them. They are like the shadows in Plato's cave.

Nonetheless, the Burden's bridges are literally paradigms of complexity, with their incredible criss-crossing of struts and their regimented legions of bolts and nuts. Furthermore, by definition they recognize some larger phenomenon, just as his earlier performance works involving the confession of personal difficulties try to recognize or reveal the larger phenomenon of himself. The perfection of the model is haunted by imperfections and failure, something like Big Job, the huge tractor trailer he bought in 1977 that he hoped would serve several very useful functions in his life but which kept breaking down, like the love life that even this macho gesture couldn't save.

Almost all of Burden's work, no less the bridges, involves a journey: the journey of a bullet into his left arm from a friend shooting a rifle; of bullets he shot at an airplane; of himself crawling across glass, being kicked down a stairway, or falling off a pedestal; of various cars, planes, kayaks, bicycles, and boats he built and/or rode; of light and how its speed is measured. It isn't just that there is something at the other end but that there is a great deal between here and there, where metaphor is tested against rather hard fact. Continuity between consciousness and the world, between the convolutions of human experience and the laws of physics, is curiously distorted, courting and avoiding tragedy, producing comedy. The form now taken by the journey is a bridge, for Burden an object of outlandish ambition and beauty.

Donald Goddard © 2004

The exhibition was on view at Gagosian Gallery, New York, NY

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