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PRINT September 2015

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Chris Burden

Chris Burden, Exposing the Foundation of the Museum, 1986, three excavations of earth. Installation view, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Photo: Squidds & Nunns.

SPRING 1976: This would be my first time on the West Coast, my first time in LA.

Art- and architecture-doers of my generation were seldom asked to go to other places in the US; we were asked to go instead to Western Europe. Dealers there knew they could bring us over on the cheap—we were the young ’uns who could be stored in second- and third-rate hotels, we took whatever we could get, we didn’t know any better. (Of course we knew better: We knew that Jasper Johns, e.g., was traveling in a different class than we were . . . )

We were the generation that didn’t travel packed with art to sell, we were the ones who made things up on the spot, we did so-called performances and installations that were thrown away—out with the garbage—once we were through with them: All that the dealers had to pay for were (for them) cheap tricks that got attention and surprise and maybe even some tittering applause before dinner. For us, though, this was what we got up for, this was what we lived for, breathed for, this is what had to save our lives.

This is the context in which Chris Burden and I met; each of us knew that we were meant to meet—each of us had his sights aimed at the other, each of us knew that the other was his rival, each of us was (undercover and under our breath) out to beat the other.

It turned out that both of us lived in Venice, California, down the block from each other.

Chris became obsessed with the fact that I didn’t drive, he said no one can live here without driving, people die here without driving, they don’t know how to sit in a car without driving. I told him a story: I was in my last year in college at Holy Cross, in Worcester, Massachusetts—I was sitting next to the guy who was driving, and the guy said to me, “Take the wheel.” OK, so I took the wheel, I did what he told me to do, put my two hands around the wheel—so the car started quickly to veer off the road, swerve off, everybody in the car started shouting, “Look out! Look out! Look out!” What did I do wrong, I thought, what did I do? “What are you doing?” they said—it seemed all of them were talking, no, shouting, screaming, all at once . . . So I started to defend myself, “Look, you told me what to do, so I put my hands on the wheel—but you didn’t tell me, manipulate the wheel, steer the wheel, you didn’t tell me to drive the car, I can’t do that, I don’t know how to drive . . . ”

So from that moment on, Chris never once asked me—nobody asked me—to ever take the wheel again . . .

These are the Chris Burden projects I’ll always have on my mind and maybe even in my hands:

I Became a Secret Hippy, October 3, 1971: He takes off his jeans, his T-shirt, lies down on the floor on his back . . . Another guy hammers a star stud into his sternum . . . He’s sitting down, has all his hair cut off . . . Now he’s dressed up in FBI clothes . . .

You’ll Never See My Face in Kansas City, November 6, 1971: He doesn’t move for three hours—he’s sitting behind a panel (some piece of wood, I think) that hides his big neck and head . . . All the while he’s in Kansas City, he’s wearing a ski mask . . .

B-Car, 1975: From August 24 to October 16, 1975, he’s thinking up/designing/building a tiny, minuscule maybe, one-passenger auto—an operational four-wheeled car that goes one hundred miles per hour on one hundred miles per gallon . . . It’s like both a bicycle and an airplane . . .

Samson, 1985: He’s making a hundred-ton jack connected to a gearbox and a turnstile, it pushes two large timbers against the museum’s facing walls; each entrant to the museum goes through the turnstile, each rotation of the turnstile just-a-tiny-bit expands the jack—if one too many visitors enter the museum, Samson wrecks the building . . .

Exposing the Foundation of the Museum, 1986: Three diggings, nine feet deep and sixteen wide, made underground to expose the footings that support three steel columns . . . Stairs dug in help visitors go down into and through the earth . . . (For me this is the best show he—or maybe anyone else—ever had.)

Bridges Between Adults & Children: 1/4 Ton Bridge, 1997: An arched bridge constructed by Meccano and Erector parts, supporting five hundred pounds . . . Thin diagonal struts attaching deck to arch transfer the load to stop the span from collapsing . . . Mexican Bridge, 1998: Serpentine reverse arches (model of a cast-iron bridge designed in the 1860s but unbuilt . . . Tyne Bridge, 2002: Another Meccano model . . . Curved Bridge, 2003: This gossamer bridge uses the basic Mysto Erector No. 1 parts, it starts with a bulky base but rises up to a narrow, sensitive, refined, overdelicate summit . . .

I never saw him again after that time in Venice, 1976 (I don’t think I’m making this up): I went to shows of his in New York, I have no idea if he went to any shows of mine—once between then and now, Nancy Rubins (his second wife) and I spent a short time together, I don’t remember where . . . My work turned to architecture, his to a grown-up’s alteration of packed miniature cities and bridges in the middle of nowhere, maybe everywhere. (My adjectives in the last paragraph show that I’m losing touch with Chris, I can’t stick with him when he’s inside a world of miniatures and children and toys—but he’s always there with delicacy, always as a grown-up who can’t help reliving and re-rehearsing someone else’s childhood if not his own—I’m losing him, he’s going, he’s starting to be gone, but never, never all gone . . . I didn’t go to his opening at the New Museum in October 2013; I had to teach. Maria, my wife—she’s a poet—went to Chris’s opening in my stead: She’d heard stories from me about Chris (maybe some make-believe) and she wanted to know true/false, right/wrong, made-up/real. She found out for herself and on her own: Maria/Chris/Nancy found themselves out for themselves. Then I came in, from the outside, on the phone: for a brief time, on air and over the air, Nancy and I and Chris and Maria came together.

We were sure we’d meet, at least once more, before they left. We didn’t. Time passed. Chris died.

Vito Acconci heads a design studio in New York, working in the US, Europe, and Asia.