New York

Chris Burden

Chris Burden offered a star-wars fantasy in which the new-world ambition signified by Columbus’ ships (all three were here) was continuous with the ambition that leads us to explore space and make war. The way his objects swam and related in space, not just the objects themselves, was essential to this installation, which was a kind of crazy-quilt convergence of different versions of the will to conquer alien worlds—ironically, with Rube Goldberg means. It’s all child’s play, Burden seemed to be saying, while he muted the fun by the sinister sense of violence that hovered over the nonsequential narrative plot. These works are like props for a snuff film—the objects have the air of homemade .22s. An inventory of the components of The Ship of Corks, 1983, is revelatory: 2,700 wine-bottle corks, a child’s 19th-century shotgun, 12 dry batteries, 8 paddle wheels, bamboo, copper wire, nails, and electrical tape. Burden is the American tinkerer/hobbyist/homegrown inventor at work, inventing the decline and fall of American civilization. Also, there’s a touch of the folk artist having fun with the apocalypse; what else can you do with it? I find the work almost more intriguing for the American types it evokes (especially the guy going nuts in his backyard trying to do something serious with his weekend leisure time) than for the objects themselves. What they connote is more to the point than what they denote, or metaphorically magnify.

This work is beyond good and evil, beyond esthetic judgment. It’s really too Duchampian—too much of a philosopher’s gamble at meaning—and too eloquently everyday to be artified. And yet it’s archly arty, with its bright colors and jagged innards, the wonderful planes of The Glass Ship, 1983, and the nonchalant naiveté verging on insouciance of The Frictionless Sled, 1982, and R.O.G. (Rise Off the Ground), 1980 (a fleet of toy airplanes). While I was in the gallery Burden was demonstrating his light machine to a friend of mine, and it didn’t work, at least not without a lot of tinkering and toying. I love it when artists play mad scientists, seers, and star-trekkers all in one. There’s hope for art when it can once again be good clean fun, with a hint of bad sport. Burden shows that Friedrich Schlegel’s “eternal play of the world,” which works of art supposedly mime, is foul play.

Donald Kuspit