By Amanda York
Chris Burden’s Extreme Measures fills the New Museum’s five gallery floors. The top floor contains archival materials and narrated videos chronicling Burden’s agonizing performances of the 1970s, and the floors below convey the artist’s initiatives in sculpture and video since that time. As the title implies, the newer works in Extreme Measures are often monumental in scale and heft. A post anchored to the gallery’s floor is a fulcrum for two metal arms in Porsche with Meteorite (2013): a restored yellow Porsche convertible is counterbalanced on the other arm by a large meteorite. Similarly, 1 Ton Crane Truck (2009) is a flatbed truck with a rigging system that dangles a metal cube labeled “1 TON” several feet off the gallery floor. These endeavors initially appear flashy, and some of the materials directly connote luxury. This is especially true of Tower of Power (1985), a pyramidal arrangement of 4 million dollars worth of gold bricks surrounded by a grouping of matchsticks fashioned into tiny men, all encased under a small vitrine. Despite the sculpture’s worth and glitz, viewing it is a letdown after waiting in line, placing bags in lockers, and being permitted to proceed by the ever-present security guard. But was the work really just the sculpture? Or did it also include the guard, pre-viewing process and anticipation, and the resulting awareness of unmet expectations? Every work in the exhibition provoked an immediate reaction—often some combination of violence, power, and aggression—but further contemplation reveals complexity. The works’ initial affronts later dissolve to reveal precariousness: There’s vulnerability in the ongoing gravity-defying suspension of heavy objects. They bring to mind Gertrude Stein’s “continuous present,” with its constant re-evaluation of things anew, coupled with a sense of urgency sparked by conflict (a topic further explored by Burden in other works). However, the works’ nuances are again undermined by the matter-of-fact wall labels drafted by Burden. For example, 1 Ton Crane Trucks’ label explains that the truck has been fully restored and outfitted with new tires; a seemingly irrelevant statement. However, these writings could also fit into the scope of the work, as a type of shop-talk that extends the hard-edged masculinity of his sculptures while glossing over their affective properties.
Burden’s performances were distillations—the artist used his body and minimal props (glass, fire, water) to perform a straightforward yet excruciating task lasting seconds to weeks. Contrastingly, Burden’s sculpture is an accumulation of materials and meanings. Compare Burden’s performance Shoot (1971) with his installation A Tale of Two Cities (1981)—in the former, a bullet pierced Burden’s skin in a matter of seconds and exists today only in documentation (and likely a scar), while the other is a 26.5-ton assemblage of sand, boulders, and decorative plants that together function as the setting for over 5,000 toys engaged in battle. Burden’s performances immediately conjure a sense of danger, but his sculptures of slick, mass-produced components initially render the viewer awestruck by their scale, their fetishistic embrace of commodity or rarity, and their restored perfection. A peeling away of these surfaces exposes something horrific beneath. Their structure embodies flux, precariousness, tenuousness, and the employment of found materials (in this case, shockingly, children’s toys) reflects back at us, illustrating how violence is passively ingrained in society, and that the atrociousness of war is somehow distanced through the familiarity of its imagery. Burden’s work demonstrates the absurd cyclical nature of humanity’s basest tendencies, or, has Stein said, the “again and again.”
Amanda York is a first-year MA candidate in Hunter College’s Art History program.