Pinned to the outside of SoHo’s New Museum is the 4,000-pound and 30 foot long ‘Ghost Ship,’ a black-hulled modern yacht. The crewless and self-navigating sailboat took a five-day, 330-mile trip around the United Kingdom before taking its current spot as an installation above the museum entrance. And so we are welcomed into New York City’s only exclusively contemporary art museum and into the retrospective of Chris Burden’s career of testing moral, physical and artistic boundaries.
“Chris Burden: Extreme Measures” is dominated by the monumental, showing off Burden’s distinctive capacity to solidly architect and engineer his works. Each of the five stories showcases only a handful of works at most; Burden’s pieces are massive enough, or commanding enough, to merit an entire museum floor. Burden’s work questions our constraints, whether they are self-imposed or dictated by laws of nature, and stretches or upends them. Such boundary pushing has resulted in Burden’s site-specific “Beam Drop” (1985), in which a construction crane drops dozens of steel beams into a wet concrete pit, orchestrated both by artist and chance. It has also led to “The Rant” (2006), a film of a close-up of the artist’s face in goggles in the swimming pool as he delivers a French monologue as an intense, xenophobic preacher.
On the top floor is the documentation of Burden’s prolific performance art, unnerving his audiences as he upsets our ideas of the physical, mental and emotional. The museum presents a documentary film, a BBC interview and a series of books to reflect back on Burden, the body artist: there’s the notorious “Shoot” (1971), in which Burden had his assistant shoot him in the left arm with a rifle. There’s “Fire Roll” (1971), in which Burden sets fire to a pair of pants and extinguishes the flames with his body. And there’s “Shout Piece” (1973), in which Burden sits on a suspended platform in a room, covered with red paint, and yells at visitors to “get the f*** out”—they almost always left immediately. Burden pushes himself to the extremes of pain and discomfort, and brings his audience along, challenging and broadening the relationship of artist and viewer alike.
In the rest of the museum, we see the other aspects of Burden’s work that flourished later in his career: the ones that were meticulously measured out to create impeccable industrial structures. These are Burden’s sculptures and machines, still defiant in nature but embodied in Burden’s enthrallment with modern machinery. With “The Big Wheel” (1979), Burden has put together a kinetic sculpture of a blue motorcycle and a cast-iron flywheel that measures eight feet across. When the motorcycle engine revs, the wheel is set into motion for hours. In “Porsche with Meteorite” (2013), Burden has balanced a restored, bright yellow sports car with a 400-pound meteorite on a long steel structure; visitors can walk around and underneath the steel beam, inspecting the black leather interior of the car and the pockmarked meteorite.
Burden also goes from the colossal to the miniature. In “A Tale of Two Cities,” Burden has painstakingly created a gargantuan miniature landscape with sand, toys and more. The piece requires the use of museum-provided binoculars to inspect the details of this so-called “glorified child’s war game.” In “All the Submarines of the United States of America,” Burden suspends 625 cardboard miniature submarines with a list on the wall of their respective names. The arrangement of the submarines is aesthetic, and while it is undoubtedly politically charged, it comes with no accompanying commentary by Burden. And visitors wait in line to see “Tower of Power” (1985) one at a time after reading about the ‘tower of gold.’ I left this piece feeling underwhelmed—the gold looks like wrapped-up chocolate, and the tower was much smaller than I envisioned, with little matchstick men arranged around the circular structure. My friend, though, noticed otherwise. The small, dismissive stack is worth well over $4 million. The sculpture, lacking in technique, was grounded in the security of its gold material, and Burden has encapsulated the triviality of how we value both goods and art.
Where “Chris Burden: Extreme Measures” lacks in respect to Burden’s earlier work and performance art, it succeeds in highlighting both the meticulousness and grandiosity by which Burden constructs each of his pieces and installations. I was surprised by the captivation that Burden elicited through low-resolution photographs of his past body art or his extensive structures of metal arches. As we go through these five floors of the New Museum, we witness the highlights of Burden’s 40 years’ worth of work, navigating from the miniscule to the massive, from the artificial to the emotional and from the practical to the unbearable.