New York

Chris Burden

Gagosian Gallery (21)

A volcanic mass of rocky landscape at once wrapped with and penetrated by model trains and tracks of various sizes, Medusa’s Head, 1989–92, hung from the ceiling like a twisted child’s vision of terrestrial apocalypse. The gaping wounds on the object’s contorted surface doubled as tunnels for the immobile toy trains-atrophied, self-circulating travel refusing to proceed around a globe of materialized entropy. A grand, if not somehow threatening, deliberate inanity that also characterizes Chris Burden’s Whitney Biennial installation, Fist of Light, 1992–93, predominates here. In the latter we encounter something that resembles an air circulation system, which looks like the exposed infrastructural machinery of the museum. A set of aluminum ducts establishes its own simple yet monumental architecture, connecting a modest air-conditioning unit to a large rectilinear aluminum “room” that contains, shut from view, a battery of high-intensity lights generating enough heat to strip color from any surface. The system of ducts delivers cool air in order to deter the potentially destructive escape of heat and light from this self-regulating mechanical prison. Fundamentally, both works are predicated on the idea that art’s meaning lies in its meaninglessness and vice versa. The viewer becomes the unwitting accomplice of this tautological system.

But this should come as no surprise. Since the early ’70s, Burden has confronted the audience with an arrogant disavowal of their belief in the myth of the vanguard artist’s rebellion against social responsibility—even as he secretly counted on them to momentarily buy into it. While Burden’s use of photography to “document” his acts guaranteed a degree of mediation, it also accorded a second-order mythic status to the “original” event. The viewer was invited to suspend disbelief in the “fact” that Burden had crucified himself on a Volkswagen, or that he had taken a shot at a plane flying overhead. The photos seemed to offer all the necessary evidence-the proof of physical self-victimization, or of an outward threat. But, finally, it really doesn’t matter whether or not such events occurred: Burden was—and is—offering a test of the viewer’s faith in categorical distinctions between “reality” and “fiction,” “truth” and “falsity.” Ironically, his work indicates a profound skepticism about the viability of the very terms of this test.

Such early works cleverly appropriated the stereotype of the vanguard artist as emancipated transgressor of accepted ethical, moral, and social codes only to reveal the terms of its absurdity. Throughout the late ’70s and ’80s, Burden produced objects and installations that evoked the rationalism of scientific and technological discourse, but that were designed, in the end, to undermine their own claims to functionality. Fist of Light possesses a kind of inconsequential utility, coyly replaying the hermetic circularity of instrumental reason. Medusa’s Head constipates our gaze: suspended inches off the floor, this meteoric conglomeration of cement, rock, and toy trains entreats us to probe its debased sculptural materiality. At 14 feet in diameter and 5 tons, it is an imperiously dumb object, obnoxious in its presence. The work recalls what Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari dubbed the “third term”: “an enormous undifferentiated object. Everything stops dead for a moment, everything freezes in place. . . . From a certain point of view it would be much better if nothing worked, if nothing functioned.”

Joshua Decter