The first time I visited the New Museum, there was a human figure writhing on the floor, and I never was sure if it was a living human or a very well-made automaton. And I ate an excellent red velvet cupcake. So I was sold.
This time, Chris Burden’s show offered a line to wait in, binoculars to look through, and movies of him doing things that are obviously nuts. No disappointment.
In the documentation of his early work, he explains, over poor-quality video, why he was inspired to lie down naked, have his assistants set long glass shelves on each shoulder, pour gasoline down them, and light two matches. That was “Icarus.” Why? I’m mistaken. He didn’t explain why.
I figure for performance artists, the reason is just, “Because it would be awesome.” A fine reason. I only watched part of the piece where he seemed to be deliberately getting hit by a car. And then there was one where he watched TV in a gallery, and then set a pair of pants on fire. Pants on fire! I think people don’t laugh looking at art because they think everything must be So Serious, but I find a whole lot of modern art funny.
Some people are upset by this and it not being anything, certainly not art, but I go to see art for the same reason I go to church and watch “RuPaul’s Drag Race”: to get jarred out of my own head, to see beautiful things, to wonder at what is out there. The Icarus piece was strange and a little wonderful, the others just reminded me that with all the really wacky people in the world, there is definitely room for me to be my rather mildly weird self.
There was a perfectly nice truck holding up a perfectly one-ton block of iron in its crane for no reason at all.
There were two miniature cities at war, warring by way of robot and doing it all on a sand base. Castles, blankets, tents, the gamut of war toys. That was where you could get the binoculars, to be able to see that world up close. A little girl looked as excited as I did. No humans, but robots and tiny houses and bullets set up as barricades, bullets big enough to protect something, at that small scale.
L.A. policemen’s uniforms, twelve or so, made oversized and hung, uninhabited, on the walls.
Lots of brown-tan, shiny submarines hung on that delicious invisible fishing line, making a sea. One for every submarine the U.S. has ever launched. Being the daughter of a submarine aficionado, I liked those. Through the thick curtain of all of them, someone near me noted that one was vibrating. “That happens. I’ve been noticing it all day,” a guard said. “I don’t know if it’s the vibrations of the building or what, but different ones vibrate.”
And I got to wait in a line. I saw people queued up, although there was no sign. Any line in an art museum is exciting (well, not the ticket line), and I saw that people were going up some stairs and coming back, so I figured, as long as they’re not shooting people in the head up there, I’ll give it a try.
You were not permitted to take anything but yourself up those stairs. I surrendered my bags to a guard, who stuffed them into a locker and gave me the key. There was another guard at the top, and behind him, a grate was pulled and locked. This staircase is very narrow, only one person wide, and white, white like a modern art museum usually is. At the top of those stairs, to my left was The Thing: a beehive-shaped stack of gold bars, yes, real gold, and matchsticks formed into little men with spears. The matchstick men were either protecting the gold, or about to attack it. The gold bars looked like Willy Wonka chocolate to me. Real gold, that much of it, looked just as fake as the crown jewels in the Tower of London. In our visually dazzling world, the old stuff doesn’t cut it.
A Porsche balanced against a piece of rock from outer space.
The pieces I understood least were the bridges. Burden built them out of erector sets and slightly larger, more industrial versions of such things. They connected nothing and nothing, but were still, I guess, bridges. Why do you want to make miniatures? What does size really mean?
I have built the Lego versions of various big buildings, and enjoyed mostly the following of directions, the being able to make something correctly in a form like that. I am messy and impatient, and Lego building is something I can still be successful at. I .guess it pleases me that the things look like real buildings… sort of. I don’t want to build the Sears Tower because I think it’s ugly, and I don’t want to build the tallest building in the world for the same reason.
The compulsion to make small things, to recreate the world, only smaller? I am interested in making it more opaque, I think, or bigger, or backwards, or something. I have trouble thinking about making anything smaller. I don’t have good fine motor skills.
Burden’s work is a lot about power, and how defensive measures affect us, or don’t. A lot about heaviness, what makes things heavy, and putting yourself up against things that could crush you.