Chris Burden

Chris Burden’s exhibition in Vienna’s Museum für angewandte Kunst (MAK) wasn’t just his first large-scale show in a European museum. It also marked the peak of a European “rediscovery” of the artist that began in 1990, particularly in France, and that could be seen in others’ work throughout the decade. “Chris Burden: Beyond the Limits” offered a summation of Burden’s various installations and projects since the 1977 C.B.T. V., as well as drawings and the Deluxe Photo Book, 1974 (fifty-three documentary photographs of performances dating to 1971); as such it was a corrective to the view of Burden throughout Europe, where his renewed importance is still based largely on his early, Aktion-inspired “events” and performances.

In the MAK show, twelve monumental sculptures and projects largely unknown in Europe, such as The Big Wheel, 1979 (in which the rear wheel of a motorcycle, flush against a three-ton flywheel, sets the latter spinning), were organized around The Flying Steamroller, 1996. This new work, conceived in 1991, but realized for the MAK show, seems to exemplify Burden's conception of sculpture-as-engineering. Burden shipped a 12-ton Navy surplus steamroller from his home outside Los Angeles to Vienna (this global, transoceanic voyage had been at the core of Burden’s original concept for the MAK, Ring Canal Project, 1995, which proposed flooding Vienna’s Ring Canal and linking it to the Danube, making possible a completely amphibious transport). The steamroller is connected to a central hydraulic unit and an almost 40-ton cement counterweight; when the operator circles at top speed in the steamroller, the machine is lifted more than three feet off the ground and is transformed into something like a heavy-machinery carousel. The Flying Steamroller retains the clarity found in Burden’s best large-scale sculptures, a clarity that comes out of his emphasis on engineering and science as models for the artist. In Samson, 1985, this same clarity of intention is present. Two large timbers were flush against the wall of the site; connected to a 100-ton jack (which was expanded by the crank of a turnstile each time a visitor entered the show), the piece could have literally brought the house down.

Sculpture as impressively direct as Burden’s recent pieces becomes a belated fulfillment of what Aktionismus envisioned as “direct art” from the end of the ’60s into the early ’70s, both here in Vienna as well as in its later incarnation in California. As is the case with Vito Acconci, to whom the artist is often compared, the continuity between Burden’s “body art” period and the later monumental sculptures cannot be overestimated, particularly in the extremist nature of his directives, the ever-present aspect of “danger” to the work, and the persistent reference point of the body and bodily experience, as linked to the intense experience of such physical forces as speed, weight, potential energy, and gravity. The comparison with Acconci is apt: Burden’s exhibition inevitably recalled Acconci’s large-scale 1993 City Inside Us, also shown at the MAK. Perhaps Burden’s greatest contribution to the tradition of public, large-scale sculpture, setting an influential example for young artists, is his highly specific, powerfully propelled vision of utopia. Unlike Joseph Beuys’ “universal utopia,” Burden’s notion of a “specific utopia,” which he derives from Michel Foucault, is one in which the figure of the engineer and a purely inventive stance toward the world serve as exemplary models for the posthumanistic artist.

Robert Fleck is a critic and curator who is the author of Raymond Hains: Gast auf der Durchreise (Frankfurt: Portikus; Stuttgart: Oktagon, 1995).

Translated from the German by David Jacobson.