Chris Burden, Dennis Oppenheim


On August 18, 1984, in Bennettsville, S.C., a tornado embedded a 28-foot-long steel beam eight feet into the manicured lawn of Drake Rogers’ house. Two weeks earlier I spent the day at Artpark, near the Canadian border, where Chris Burden was supervising the dropping of numerous steel beams of various lengths from a height of about 60 feet into a rectangular pool of unset concrete. (It took most of the day for the concrete to solidify; it had been chemically treated to slow the hardening process.) Another case of life imitating art—as usual, without the same flair and relentlessness? I don’t know if the nature-made Bennettsville piece still exists (the beam originally supported a carport a quarter of a mile away), but the art-made piece does, as a copse of upright girders randomly spaced and tilted. If undisturbed, perhaps it will last as long as the pyramids.

Burden has given monumental public sculpture a new, ironical definition. He has certainly outclassed straight constructivist and environmental sculptors. This brilliantly hybrid work not only self-deconstructs—its process of construction is self-evident—but, perhaps heavy-handedly, reveals the whimsical, arbitrary element in environmental sculpture, and as such restores a sense of conceptual freedom to sculptural practice. Yes, an articulate relationship to the environment is established; the work sits on the high plane of the park, at its entrance, demarking its wilderness from the civilized world outside. And the piece makes wonderful mockery of the idea of freestanding sculpture: the “standing” here is chance-determined, and the beams are embedded in concrete. Also, by decontextualizing signs of technology and architecture (siting them in nature and producing nothing “useful,” like a building), Burden raises in refreshingly irreverent, unanswerable form the question not only of their relationship, but of the point of both. This is consistent with his longstanding irreverent attitude to both life and art, his peculiar sense of the pointlessness of it all.

The scale of Burden’s work trivializes the human figure, yet it itself is trivialized by the infinite space of sky and land in which it is set. The energy—literally the force of gravity—with which it was created also conveys a sense of the more than human, the infinite energy available in the cosmos and tapped by technology. The work is indeed cosmic in implication, displaying the paradoxical intention of wanting both to belittle or trivialize art-making and to explore its ties to the cosmic forces (chance, gravity, space, and, less directly, time) that are the invisible framework in which we exist. Burden protects himself with irony while using art to explore the unseen yet clearly empirical realities that impinge upon us. Perhaps no artist working today knows as well as he does that art is a way of reminding us that we dangle in a dilemma, as though art itself were caught indecisively between its own objecthood and its use as a heuristic gambit into our subtle, incomprehensible ties to the cosmos. The American sublime, from Frederick Edwin Church to Barnett Newman, has always been about the articulation of a way to survive in the void, namely by becoming the lightning rod that can both ground it and make its force visible. Burden’s sculpture is not unrelated to Walter de Maria’s Lightning Field, 1977. Indeed, more adventurously, it uses advanced technology’s socially constructive inventions—steel and concrete—for the unpragmatic purpose of creating a meditative relationship to the inhuman universe beyond society.

Dennis Oppenheim’s Newton Discovering Gravity, 1984, looked out from a knoll over the Niagara River. A hollow framework of wheels and weapons, in the form of a head, it resembled an erector set equipped with radar—another miracle of technology. The piece seemed vulnerable in its transparency and its lonely perch. The top of the skull had been removed, as if to allow a better view of the brain, but what one saw instead were the “nerves” that led to the rest of the body. I perceived in it a new head of Constantine, equally gigantic if less arrogant; perhaps its indifference was a form of arrogance. Oppenheim’s Newton was of another, inhuman world, the cosmic world to which his intellect gave him access. He began to look increasingly dull during the day, trivial in form, rigid in outlook. But at night he exploded in fireworks, literally and no doubt figuratively too. The display seemed more whimsical than strong-willed; the brain-power sputtered, and the crowd laughed at moments. Anticipation was kept on edge: would the next burst be vigorous or lame; would it reach to the river, or peter out in front of the head; would it be clear and bright or smoky and silly? The crowd kept asking when the fireworks would be spent, and when they were, there was a sense of loss. It was as though the gravity Newton had discovered had absorbed him. He was all but forgotten in the darkness, which seemed the oppressive gravity incarnate.

Oppenheim has been making all kinds of machines for some time, many of them involving pyrotechnical displays. One, which took place in a gallery, setting it temporarily on fire, seemed from all accounts like scary entertainment. This one, set in the grand space of nature, was entertaining, but also evoked pathos—the cost of Newton’s theory, which exhausted him. In fact, Newton became academic and spiritualist later in life. Is there an occult intention in Oppenheim’s perverse delight in obsolete, “ineffective” technology—technology that has become significant only for art? Oppenheim doesn’t seem as interested in the often fascinating objecthood of his pieces as in the pretentious scientific understanding implied by them. I see his machines as surrogates for the scientific mind at its most conscious, and a reminder of how unconscious it still is. He has achieved something extraordinary: he has made the ingenious products of scientific technology seem like unconscious fantasies. One can’t help but think of Victor Tausk’s conception of the “influencing machine in schizophrenia,” the machine as a symptom of paranoid persecution. Or is Oppenheim’s example the entertaining machine that another psychoanalyst, Hanns Sachs, describes in his investigation of the ingenious devices the Romans invented for their amusement at the circus and theater? To apply all that theoretical and practical brilliance to social fun was a device to hold the body politic together (as likely to work as any other, certainly as well as religion). Oppenheim seems to be asking, is that what our machines are really about, divertissements to keep us from killing one another out of paranoia? Certainly the ominous Other stands behind Oppenheim’s machines, and part of their brilliance is their ability to raise the question of the intention of their inventors, to recognize the perverse, even pathological element in it. Oppenheim’s Newton is clearly a madman, paranoid about the Other—God—which might inhabit the sublime void he faces, the void that has come to constitute him. He has called God gravity, and explodes into the void, totally dissipated from the ungovernable paranoia that has become his theoretical consciousness.

Donald Kuspit