Chris Burden’s Wisdom Revisited

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Urban Light

Urban Light © Chris Burden

Audiences of Chris Burden’s early conceptual performances, during which he was “shot, pierced, starved, crucified, electrocuted, cut by glass, kicked down stairs, locked up, dropped from heights and nearly drowned,” would likely never have imagined that this punky artist would wind up creating one of LA prettiest artworks: Urban Light, the thicket of more than 200 cast-iron street lamps at the entrance to LACMA that is beloved by lovers, children, museum goers and anyone interested in LA’s idiosyncratic public spaces.

So Los Angeles has lost a city-maker as well as a challenging artist, with the passing, this week, of Chris Burden.

In 2012, DnA met Chris, at the opening of his other delightful piece at LACMA, Metropolis II, a room-sized mini-city made of wooden blocks, glass and stone tile, plexiglass, meccano, erector sets, and Lincoln Logs.

At that interview he shared his views on the future of mobility in LA (automated cars will trump public transit or bicycles), why his urban-themed public art pieces echo his early performance work, and how he almost became an architect.

He was fun to talk to, direct and quick to laugh, but was somewhat drowned out by the buzz of the cars whizzing around his artwork. So the interview is transcribed below.

RIP Chris Burden, April 11, 1946 – May 10, 2015.

For more on Burden’s contribution to public space, read these appreciations in the LA Times and Curbed. Listen to this DnA broadcast about Metropolis II, featuring a clip from Chris, and find appreciations by KCRW’s art critics Hunter Drohojowska-Philip and Edward Goldman, here.

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Image courtesy of Eden Pictures via Flickr

DnA: Introduce yourself.

CB: My name is Chris Burden and I’m an artist. I live in Topanga, California.

DnA: This is your second piece that looks like it’s going to become a landmark at LACMA. Tell us about it.

CB: It’s a miniature city that circulates 1100 hotwheel-type cars through its roadways, 100,000 circulate through the system every hour.

DnA: Is it a utopian or dystopian view of the city?

CB: It’s utopian. The buildings are all clean and new, and the cars are going 230 miles an hour, so that’s definitely Utopia. If you’ve driven in LA that’s definitely Utopia.

DnA: You started your career in the 70s when people didn’t anticipate cars going as slow as they do now in LA. And now you talk to people in their 20s and 30, and they get angry at cars, and welcome cycling and public transit. But it seems as if you have a fondness for the role of the car in LA.

CB: Well, it’s actually the only way to get around the city. If you don’t have a very long ways to go, a bicycle works but bicycles would be better adapted to Manhattan than Los Angeles I think. It’s hard to commute from Altadena to Newport Beach on a bicycle.

DnA: But your cars are going faster than your public transit. One of the goals for LA is to have the transit go faster.

CB: I don’t believe that for a minute. People aren’t going to give up their cars. What’s going to happen is that cars are going to be automated and controlled by satellites. People will have cars but they will simply dial in where they are going and sit back and enjoy the ride.

DnA: And the ride in this case is in much more stacked version of LA; Metropolis II is LA gone vertical.

CB: There are parts of Manhattan that are like that but I don’t think LA is going to be stacked like that. I think part of the appeal of LA is that people live in 1 or 2-story houses and have a backyard.

DnA: This art piece appeals to the many of us that find art bewildering or hard to comprehend; not to mention it is made of toys. Was it fun to build?

CB: It was fun doing the architecture, yeah, because we’d make samples of the buildings, we’d make cardboard mock-ups and place them in the space and see how they fit so architecting was fun, and we don’t have any client demands either.

DnA: Nor rain nor heat?

CB: My studio leaked so there was a rain issue at one point. You really don’t want stuff to be exposed to sunlight in an intense way.

DnA: I understand that at one point you considered becoming an architect.

CB: When I went to Pomona College, I started as an undergrad in an architectural program. It was a small liberal arts college, so you took arts classes and physics classes and math classes. It was a pretty competitive school and the physics students were the crème de la crème of physics students, but I didn’t want to spend 40 hours on an algebra problem. But I kept going back to the sculpture lab, and I realized that I was the only student that came in after class, and I realized all those materials that were bought for the whole class were actually mine.

Then I worked in an architectural office in Cambridge Mass. one summer. It was a 7-story building and was structured according to hierarchy. So the three principals had the offices in the very top floor and then it was physically stratified in the same pecking order. I was like the sub-sub guy in the basement organizing magazines.

But the people above me were grad students from Harvard’s architecture school, and what were they doing, they were drawing little toilet bowls on blueprints. And I looked at that and thought, nah, I don’t want to spend four more years and be 55 before doing something critical with my life. So I decided to become a sculpture major and artist.

DnA: For a while you famously made your own body front and center in your art. But now you are back to the sculpture workshop. You have all the materials.

CB: This is a very traditional sculpture in the sense that sculpture is different than 2D work in that you have to physically walk around the whole thing to understand it. So that was the basis for my performance works. I was trained as a minimalist, and as a minimalist I was trying to figure out the essence of sculpture and I concluded it was forcing activity on the viewer and that’s how I conceived my performance work. It was a reduction of sculpture.

DnA: It’s interesting because this (Metropolis II) has performance element but it’s not temporary. You switch a button and it goes on again.

CB: It’s performative sculpture; it’s performing for me.

DnA: When you conceived this, Urban Light was already in place — and that’s also an interpretation or a revisiting, a re-evoking of LA in the Victorian and early 20th century, and now you have this future vision of LA. Did you think of this as partner to Urban Light or was it coincidence that they ended up in the same institution?

CB: I think they both address the issue of what it means to live in an urban environment and what the quality of that is and what that means. The streetlights were part of LA’s history that was quickly being lost. At one point there were 40,000 of those lights in the city. Most were taken down and thrown away. One of the criticisms of LA during that time was that every city had a different style streetlight so there was a cacophony of different aesthetic things; Glendale would have their special lights and downtown would have theirs. It was too eclectic, basically, which I thought was a funny criticism.

But in fact streetlights were used as a real estate come-on. So before they built a neighborhood they would put in the sidewalks, put all the streetlights up so that was an indication of how fancy a neighborhood you would be moving into.

DnA: But you were saying they (Urban Light and Metropolis II) both represent different ways of living in the city.

CB: The streetlights you see out front, they are obviously ornate and they are some sort of a public art. There is no reason a pole with two lights needs to look like a Roman column and have artichokes and rosebuds all over it, so it must be for aesthetic pleasure. And you see streetlights from Bakersfield at the same period and they are a wooden pole with a cross-arm and two bulbs hanging off of it. If you were actually trying to get light onto a street you don’t need those very elaborate sculptures. So it’s a quality of life to have something that is for public consumption that is part of your everyday fabric.

And I think Metropolis II points to a time when we could travel around the city at those sort of speeds.

DnA: Both pieces appeal to the child in every adult, but also they both appeal enormously to children. Is that something you take pleasure in? Was it a goal?

CB: Yeah, I think children have fantastic imaginations, and I don’t think these two artworks I’ve produced would be beyond the imagination of a child. It’s just they don’t have the resources or the financial, physical, mental capabilities to carry them through. But I could see them dreaming them up real easily. There are in a sense pedestrian fantasies, they are not going to the moon.