The New Museum’s curiously oblique Chris Burden retrospective hides the most interesting stuff in a dark corner of the top floor. That’s where you’ll find documentation of the crazily violent performances from the early 1970s that made him famous. Burden had himself shot, electrically shocked, crucified. He persuaded audiences to stick pins in his flesh. Wearing only his Speedos, he crawled across a carpet of broken glass with both hands tied behind his back; he lived in a school locker for five days, with a bottle of drinking water above and a waste receptacle below. Even decades later, it’s these excruciating ordeals that justify the museum’s five-floor extravaganza, but you could easily miss them.
Perhaps the curators are deferring to the artist, who has tired of his long-ago actions overshadowing a long career. Burden has been churning out large-scale sculpture since the 1980s, assembling enormous Erector-Set bridges and apocalyptic dioramas, building replicas of cannons and stacking gold blocks into shiny bunkers. He’s had truck with large vehicles: boats, vintage cars, motorcycles and trucks loom large at the New Museum. A vintage Porsche swings from one end of an epic seesaw, balanced by a meteorite.
The move from solo performance to almost architectural-scale sculpture might suggest that Burden made a clean mid-career break. In fact, both love and distaste for macho posturing pulsed through his work from the start. He remains obsessed with militarism, violence and masculinity run amok. He deplores badges of American boyhood, and yet he can’t let them go.
“A Tale of Two Cities”, from 1981, pivots from mortification to accumulation. For that sprawling diorama, he rallied thousands of model soldiers and their gear, covering three continents and a millennium’s worth of armed conflict: medieval knights, second world war grunts, artillery, tanks, guns, horses, aeroplanes. It’s a nightmarish vision of endless war, and also a seductive catalogue of bloodshed. War is awful and irresistible, a force that ruins lives by the million and a fantasy that gets packaged into playthings for children. Burden’s melancholy line is as true in peacetime as in war: “Being shot is as American as apple pie.”
That wild ambivalence towards violence brought forth “Shoot”, the iconic 1971 performance laconically described in a photo caption: “At 7:45 P.M. I was shot in the left arm by a friend. The bullet was a copper jacket .22 long rifle. My friend was standing about fifteen feet from me.”
Only a dozen observers were in the room when the gun discharged, but word of mouth and a couple of grainy black-and-white photos catapulted Burden to stardom. He acquired acolytes and imitators, often young men entranced by the nihilism of self-inflicted pain. One student showed up at a class that Burden was teaching at UCLA with a fake but realistic handgun and proceeded to simulate a round of Russian roulette in front of his horrified classmates.
Actually, Burden intended “Shoot” not as a punk incitement, but as a way of bringing home the daily violence that his peers were experiencing half a world away. “Vietnam had a lot to do with ‘Shoot’,” he told an interviewer. “It was about the difference between how people reacted to soldiers being shot in Vietnam and how they reacted to fictional people being shot on commercial TV . . . I was trying to question what it means to face that dragon.” Yet he discovered the bitter irony of anti-war art: that it can make violence seductively vivid. It’s hard to evoke carnage without aestheticising it at the same time.
Burden’s rage at Vietnam (and perhaps his guilt at missing it) edged into fury at a passive art establishment, including the institutions that supported his work and the audience that came to see it. He translated the outrages taking place overseas into outrages that he committed against himself and his willing collaborators. And just as the TV crews in Vietnam made it impossible for Americans at home to claim ignorance, Burden challenged his spectators to step in and stop him from doing harm. They rarely did. He staged various forms of abuse and masochism, which curators presented to a public that obediently played along.
In an essay in the catalogue accompanying the New Museum show, Helene Winer, who ran the Pomona College Art Gallery in the early 1970s, reflects on how blithely she accepted Burden’s shock tactics back then. While an audience watched, he shot burning matches at his wife, who lay naked on the floor, calmly letting her skin get scorched. “The viewers behaved as if this were not a real-life event – a vivid demonstration of art’s impunity,” Winer writes in retrospective astonishment.
It’s hard to read about such provocations without wondering what museum – or what museum’s lawyers – would let this stuff take place today. Certainly not the New Museum, a pioneer of the genteel avant-garde in the once-gritty precincts of The Bowery. The curators, entranced by Burden’s massive sculptures, use the show to make the ultimate gonzo artist safe for public consumption. The most crowd-pleasing work is “The Big Wheel”, from 1979. A motorcycle mounted on a wooden apparatus revs its engine, spinning the rear wheel and setting a giant, three-ton cast-iron flywheel in motion. It’s an immense machine for doing nothing in particular except to smell like petrol and danger. Burden has exchanged extreme intensity for great size, and it’s not a compelling trade. The result is simultaneously monumental and wispy.
Yet maybe it makes sense, after all, for the New Museum to give pride of place to these brawny installations, which have the great advantage of actually being there. The early stunts were much talked about and rarely seen, and all that’s left of them is a residue of delighted alarm.
Continues until January 12, www.newmuseum.org