Los Angeles

Chris Burden

Rosamund Felsen Gallery

While Chris Burden has been primarily associated with performance work, in his Big Wheel he has successfully integrated the concepts of art as “object” and art as performance. The piece consists of the artist’s 250 cc Benelli motorcycle resting against the front of a 6,000 pound, 8-foot diameter, cast iron flywheel which is supported by a 6-by-6 inch lumber frame. The back wheel of the bike sits in a specially designed stand which raises it off the floor, thereby allowing it to reach speeds from 60 to 70 mph without inducing forward motion. As the bike accelerates, it rotates the flywheel which attains a maximum speed of approximately 200 rpm. After the motorcycle is shut off and disengaged, the wheel continues to spin for two hours.

Consistent with many of Burden’s earlier activities, the spectator is initially engaged by the work’s suggestion of risk and danger. Not only is there the possibility that the bike, fully accelerated in fourth gear, could break free of its support and crash into the gallery wall, but there is the risk of the driver’s body or clothes becoming trapped in the wheel, which is only three to six inches away. Moreover, the fact that such a tremendous quantity of energy is transmitted without human supervision has a curious effect on the surrounding space; even though one may be convinced by the reliability of the structural support, the vision of the wheel getting loose becomes an apocalyptic possibility. Thus, potentially destructive intentions from the dark side of consciousness loom ever present. By arousing such reactions, Burden exposes the unchecked powers of the technological state and reminds us of our fears and fantasies about confronting the unknown.

The wheel as object facilitates a soothing and contemplative experience. Because the raw and primordial energy of this unwieldy mechanical object as shown serves no utilitarian function, it invites a voyeuristic journey into a more ethereal realm. Our involvement unfolds in two stages. Initially, the wheel’s power and size, inducing a mild shock, liberate the spectator from identification with its ordinary use. Simultaneously, the spinning motion creates a point of departure for a wildly scattered and anxious mind. Perceived from this perspective, The Big Wheel becomes the gentle giant that guides the way toward inner resolution. Like Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel or Tinguely’s Homage to New York, here too a product of human technology facilitates the transformative experience.

Inescapably, then, this piece has humanistic implications; Burden’s work of the entire decade has attempted to expose the fallacy in depending upon institutionalized order and security. He has therefore evoked feelings of unexpected danger and menacing violence in order to demonstrate that the irrational can provoke feelings of honor and respect. Big Wheel might possibly be one of the artist’s most successful pieces precisely because it presents these issues through a form that is physically, emotionally and erotically engaging.

Fred Hoffman