Chris Burden is one of Orange County's most amazing success stories, whether you've ever heard of him or not. After he earned his MFA from UC Irvine in 1971, his career began with a bang—all too literally—later that year with the infamous conceptual-art piece Shoot, in which he had a friend shoot him in the arm at the F Space gallery in Santa Ana. Through the early '70s, Burden went on to create more shocking work: He had himself crucified on a Volkswagen; he spent five days in a three-foot locker, with one bottle above him for water and another bottle below him to collect his waste; he crawled over 50 feet of broken glass with his arms tied behind his back. While Burden is not exactly a household name, this early, confrontational work has, for good or ill, had a huge impact on pop culture, blazing the trail for the sadomasochistic stunts of The Tom Green Show, Jackass, David Blaine and many others. Burden was getting famous for slicing himself to shreds when those other guys were still in diapers.
But Burden could only go so far with self-imperilment as self-expression, and his art turned a corner in April 1975 with Doom, a performance at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. Burden spent 45 hours and 10 minutes under a sheet of glass, inevitably soiling himself in the process, before he finally got up, smashed a clock with a hammer, staggered out of there, and went home to wash up and figure out the next stage of his career. Once he put the stunts behind him, Burden became more of a tinkerer, futzing around with a slide rule in his studio and emerging with boats that pilot themselves and cars so lightweight they get 100 miles to the gallon. He's even been building bridges out of erector sets. What his work lost in visceral fascination, it made up for in pure geek appeal.
A Tale of Two Cities, a 1981 work currently on display at the Orange County Museum of Art and taken from the museum's permanent collection, is nerd nirvana, a sprawling, miniature battlescape that is both sobering and cute. The room-sized piece depicts a 25th century in which humankind has regressed to a system of feudal states. Through a pair of binoculars, we take in the endless details of a pair of tiny metropolises, each composed of great piles of plastic toys and other pop-cultural castoffs—factories and castles, soldiers and spaceships, all mashed together with a playful disregard for anachronism and surrounded by houseplants that serve as mighty jungles.
It's very much like something a bored kid would build over an endless summer, complete with Japanese robots on the march, and you can't help but remember those long afternoons of building your own little backyard dynasties and then flooding them with a garden hose when your mom told you it was time for dinner. But the piece is also informed by an adult's concerns; although Two Cities was conceived before many of today's soldiers were born, there is something distressingly contemporary in its vision of tanks rolling past the Pizza Hut.
Surveying the piece from on high, squinting through your binoculars at all the little army men massing below, you feel like a general on a distant hill—or a god. They look so ridiculous, perched on the brink of their teeny-tiny Armageddon, yet you can't help but worry for them. You want to tell them to call off their fight before somebody gets hurt—or they cause irreparable damage to the houseplants.
In a profile published this month in The New Yorker, Burden was asked why he let his friend fire a rifle into his arm back in '71. "I wanted to be taken seriously as an artist," Burden answered.
We can respect Burden's talents, but take his art seriously? That's tough to do, when most of it is so gimmicky and fun. There has always been something profoundly adolescent about Burden's work, and that's not intended as an insult. Most great rock & roll is adolescent at its core, and Burden is just about as close to a rock star as a fine artist has ever gotten. (Real rock stars have gladly claimed him as a brother; David Bowie wrote Joe the Lion about Burden, back in the days when having Bowie write a song about you was like being canonized by the Rock Pope or something.)
While it seems unlikely Burden's work will have great staying power over the centuries to come, in the here and now, we're damn lucky to have him. You hear about one of his pieces, and it sounds so neat you just have to rush out and see it. Burden is, for lack of a better word, cool. Cool lacks the shelf life of the truly great, but true cool (as opposed to, say, the desperate, three-hit-wonder cool of a Gwen Stefani) can change the world. And with his bullets, his erector sets and his piles of little army men, that's just what Burden has been doing for nearly four decades now. Long may Joe the Lion roar.
"CHRIS BURDEN: A TALE OF TWO CITIES" AT THE ORANGE COUNTY MUSEUM OF ART, 850 SAN CLEMENTE DR., NEWPORT BEACH, (949) 759-1122. CALL FOR HOURS. THROUGH JUNE 17.
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