New York

Chris Burden

Gagosian Gallery (21)

As the oft-cited Michel Foucault has noted, in a society of generalized surveillance we do our own policing. In such regimes, power is not exercised but displayed, since its real operations come not from without but from within. Exploiting the fault lines of power and control, Chris Burden’s work has, in the past, invoked the internalization of perpetual but covert surveillance as conscience by recreating extreme situations. The notorious performances from the ’70s can he conceived as the deliberate and willful transgression of social and legislative codes: the power to inflict pain on the body, to discipline it or place it at risk. Radically attacking the social order maintained by the invisible, Burden forced a conscience internalized and muted as taboo to reveal itself through various acts of self-mutilation, reassigning to the body powers that society prefers to diffuse through the mind. If an enhanced sense of self-preservation as well as the real fear of becoming the art-world’s guinea pig have mellowed Burden’s more confrontational impulses, then this latest show of work continued to explore the same themes, returning them not to the artist’s own body, but to the Los Angeles riots.

The gallery walls were lined with an encircling cordon of LAPD uniforms. Perfectly replicated yet slightly oversized, the uniforms suggested the hypertrophied body of caricatured authority; the real guns and cuffs—fetishes of power—mixing promises of protection with undisclosed threats. Literally and metaphorically hounding the outer limits of behavior, the uniforms defined and enclosed the space, returning the spectator to a five-sided cabinet-vitrine that took center stage. Within this mirrored pentangle, were five vignettes from America’s Darker Moments, 1994. Cast in the folksy style of early pewter toy making, each scene consisted of an arrangement of free standing figures and events depicting John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the killing of Kent State students by National Guardsmen, the My Lai Massacre, the Bombing of Hiroshima, and the murder of Emmett Till. Reflecting only its own toy-naive content, the mirrored vitrine was both Pentagon and panopticon. The miniaturized histories, like the miniaturized battleships, bombs, and tanks arranged on pedestals in the back room, produced the unsettling sensation that real power lies not in the engine of history and its machines of destruction, but in the space between—the space of absolute normality.

For all it’s apparent promises of sociohistorical commentary, Burden’s latest work fails to deliver—a failure that, whether conscious or not, is its paradoxical strength. Like Marcel Duchamp, Burden has been forced into a retirement of games while everyone around him cries defection and foul play. Combining deadly seriousness with childish perversity the game is played out with empty vessels. Power in Burden’s latest work is everywhere visible but nowhere verifiable, suggesting perhaps, that the old torture chambers of the Pentagon, Party, and State are mere playthings in the hands of artists, gods, and politicians. As if to prove the point that control no longer emanates from the center but resides in a carceral continuum in which the threat of delinquency hangs over the slightest deviation or anomaly, Burden returns us to our own sense of disappointment—that this is just another artist playing a game of power.

Neville Wakefield