PRINT September 2015


Chris Burden

Liz Larner’s copy of the map locating Chris Burden’s Scale Model of the Solar System, 1983, in Newport Beach, CA, 1988.

IN 1981 (it could have been ’82), Chris Burden came to speak at my beginning sculpture class. I was not an art major at the time and was taking the class as an elective. It is significant that I recall so much of his lecture because my memory usually doesn’t work that way. I can still see his head tipped down slightly, eyes looking up. He had a chilly, metallic affect that skewed against his cherubic face. He seemed a little mean, but not in the punk-rock way I was used to by then. Thinking back on it, I realize he was just intense, passionate, and succinct—a man on a mission who didn’t want to be charming. To say that seeing his work and hearing him talk about it were startling is not sufficient. To a young, uninitiated student, the idea that what he was doing had anything to do with sculpture was mind-expanding. A chasm of possibility was opened.

It was a few years later, this time at art school, that I saw Beam Drop, 1984. The film, which captures huge steel I beams dropped more than one hundred feet from a crane into wet cement, brought together the complex ideas about duration, dependence, and chance (or was it a demand for faith in the inevitability of something happening?) that he had introduced to me in the lecture: the strength and weakness of materials; the relationship of the activity of a material (hardening concrete) in an artwork to how that material exists in the world around us; how a material could become poetic, have meaning, and function. All of this was given to me in a six-minute film, which is also a performance, a record (like the “relics” objects from his performances), and a sculpture.

A few years after I received my BFA, I made sure to drive to Orange County to see Burden’s twenty-year survey at the Newport Harbor Art Museum in Newport Beach. The exhibition was prodigious. One piece, Scale Model of the Solar System, 1983, was so salient and—in terms of its implications about site-specificity, the body, technology, time, and space—unparalleled. The work presented a model of the solar system, situated in scale across the city (Mercury was just thirty-six feet from the sun, which was at the museum, but Pluto was almost a mile out).

Having already driven more than an hour from Los Angeles to get behind the Orange Curtain, and having spent another couple of hours in the exhibition, I hesitated before deciding to embrace the map that was provided and to visit the planets located within walking—and then driving—distance around Newport Beach. There were no straight lines, and even with the map I got lost. It took me the rest of the day (and I had arrived at the museum when it opened). But my sense of where I really was, and the scale of this in my head, in my body, in my car, in Newport Beach, in Orange County, in the solar system, was so exaggerated—thanks to Burden’s singular combination of lighthearted absurdity, practical logistics, and utter seriousness—that I still draw on the experience to this day.

Liz Larner is an artist based in Los Angeles.