New York

Chris Burden

Ronald Feldman Gallery

Chris Burden’s current show, C.B. T. V., consists of a single piece, a reconstruction of the first television ever designed. Its plan dates from the second decade of the 20th century, and actually involves two similar machines, linked by cables. It is operated, auspiciously, once a day.

The machine is much like a Rube Goldberg cartoon reconstructed. It is quite complex, and Burden does not conceal its intricacy behind polished mahogany or brushed aluminum instrument panels. Clearly, its mechanical complexity is meant to be seen, to contrast absurdly with the trivial television image produced. The apparatus is worthy of description. A small, high-intensity lamp projects the shadow of some chosen object—a key, a subway token, a tiny plastic animal—against a large precision-balanced disc that revolves at a very high speed. Small holes in the disc permit the shadow to pass through to a photocell, which transmits the image to the counterpart machine on the other side of the room. This latter machine decodes the transmission through another whirling disc, projecting a tiny image, about an inch square, on a viewing screen at which the viewer may squint and guess what he is seeing. This final image is no more than a black silhouette (Burden’s TV cannot reproduce gradations of light) against a dark red background. As the viewer is instructed beforehand by the gallery employee who operates the machine to guess what object is being shown, one assumes that the guessing game is also a part of Burden’s piece. His television is accurate enough, however, for guessing to be childishly easy.

What is significant about the piece, at least initially, is the contrast it evokes between large, sophisticated process and minute product. In this way, it seems to strike satirically at just about everyone who makes art nowadays. To those who make pictures, it indicates that one can make a show whose single picture is tiny and mindless—a show composed of nothing, really, but technical dazzlement. Why bother making pictures, then, it seems to ask. To those who have given up picture-making for art in which process is everything, or who have subordinated pictorial choice to systematic (technical) imperative, Burden’s machine points out how stupid and purposeless their product is. Meanwhile, the piece emphasizes how much more interesting the actual key or token is than so minor an image of it.

In a broader way, the C.B.T.V. plays on everyone’s fascination with intricate machinery, a fascination that has had much to do with the rise of technology’s fortunes and the decline of art’s. Of course, many artists have borrowed the ethos of the scientific, and with it, a bit of the technocrat’s prestige. Burden, however, brings the technological object, which one persists in believing antithetical to the esthetic object, right into the gallery. Art is usurped on its own territory, because we are, just as Burden expects us to be, more intrigued by the workings of his machine than by its picture.

The C.B.T.V. is not exactly an object trouvé, not only because it was built rather than found, but also because it is such an anachronism. Neither is it an absurd mechanical fantasy, a la Tinguely; only as complicated as it needs to be, it is not an exaggeration. It is, rather, a calculated deception that uses or abuses—the gallery audience’s expectations. As such, it is a stand-in for Burden himself, who has played on viewer expectation comparably in previous works, often by being invisible or absent when one thought he would be present.

What is curious about the current show is that Burden has chosen to use a mechanical proxy, and likewise, that he has set aside the heroics of his earlier pieces in favor of such droll understatement. The bravado of the works in which Burden endangered or physically harmed himself amounted to a struggle to be heard, amid all other art, and by the larger world that more or less ignores sophisticated art anyway. The C.B.T.V. contains no such element of bravado, unless we are to assume that its technical complexity symbolically and ironically stands for the heroics of science, and places Burden in the role of technologist as hero. This assumption would be extreme at the least; we would do better to take Burden’s piece as simple satire. It is a transitory satirical gesture at most, however, whimsical and undramatic. Despite its permanence as an object, I suspect it will be outlived by the best of Burden’s performances, even though these existed only briefly and survive only through their documentation.

—Ronald Feldman Gallery