Chris Burden


This July 28, the Newcastle/Gateshead quayside hosted the Tall Ships Races, an annual celebration of nineteenth-century maritime technology. A flotilla of over one hundred ships, their decks filled with activity, left Newcastle to a backdrop of waving flags, music, and more onlookers than the city ever expected. As the ships departed and the crowds moved from the banks of the river to return the city to normalcy, a single, small boat sailed up the river, past the BALTIC arts center and through the Millennium Bridge, specially raised for the occasion. The boat’s deck was empty; it was entirely unmanned. Those watching did a double take as the crewless craft slipped through the waters. The poetic quietude of this moment took those who witnessed it by surprise—and not simply because of the seeming impossibility of a boat operating without a crew. Self-sustainable yet vulnerable, it evoked an unexpected emotion, born of the mingling of the romantic myths of loss evoked by the sea with a realization of the power of modesty over spectacle.

Powered by a single sail, Chris Burden’s Ghost Ship, 2005, had arrived from Fair Isle, Scotland, on its maiden voyage, having traveled well over four hundred miles in five days. A small island in the Shetlands, Fair Isle has been a shipping landmark for thousands of years. Ghost Ship was hand-built following a traditional Shetland design known as a sixareen, developed for fishing in the difficult local waters and built intuitively, by eye, with the notion that if it looks right, it is right. Likewise a sixareen is navigated intuitively, based on the skipper’s knowledge of stars, sun, wind, and sea swell. With Ghost Ship, Burden has brought this long seafaring history into conversation with new technology: Beneath deck-level transparent sheeting the hull holds a laptop and a GPS to navigate the boat unmanned, as well as a system of hydraulic cylinders to trim the sails.

All of these technical details are important, yet they reveal very little of the actual artwork itself. As an engineering experiment the research will head off in other directions, but these are effects rather than affects. Ghost Ship is a proposition, evoking speculation and imagination. Burden’s practice pushes at the limits of perceived possibilities, offering a series of proposals to be realized. Thus, for instance, B-Car, 1975, was an important departure from his early body-works, initiating an extended exploration into the boundaries of technology in the realm of the social. Using the latest advancements in engineering and technology, B-Car proposed to realize the potential of existing technological achievements of the time, and, like Ghost Ship, the work was built through intuition. The act of creation, rather than the actual driving of the car or the sailing of the boat, is the driving force behind these actions. His work acts out simple questions on the model of, “What happens if you. . . ?”—making the risk of failure an active space of opportunity. Burden cites the success here as simply existing in the invitation from the commissioning agency Locus+ to attempt to make it happen—in other words, to extend the edges of the known. The event of each piece poses an open question: Can it happen again? Knowing the answer is not the point, nor is the importance of firsthand witnessing. Burden’s is a practice suffused with possibilities where questions are posed in a consideration of how structures and limits shape the world.

Lisa Le Feuvre