The Unbearable Burden of Lightness

Aging legend Chris Burden is a popular guy. People dig it that he had himself shot in one of his 1970s performances—his shock tactics would eventually inform the style of shock jocks like Howard Stern, but with critical fawning—and he and his gargantuan ego were among the first West Coast art stars at a time when everybody with a modicum of taste (well, everybody but Joni Mitchell) was mocking Southern California for its pretty, empty-headed Gidget beachiness. "Los Angeles is unique in its bright horror," Gore Vidal said, and nobody refuted it, not even a little. And that was decades before "this fall's new guilty pleasure," Titans.

There are many reasons why the Orange County Museum of Art (OCMA) displays Burden's installation Tale of Two Cities seemingly every two years.

"Isn't that rather frequent?" you might be asking yourself.

Why do you always have to be such a party pooper? If OCMA wanted, it could display nothing but an endless cycle—the periodic swapping of Burden for William Wegman's equally beloved costumed Weimaraners and back again—and there would be nothing you could do to stop them. Burden envelops the museum with his street cred and his critical approbation. Even 20 years later, the shock of the new comes across; aside from GG Allin (and I'm shocked it took him so long to actually die), no performance artist has almost killed himself onstage recently.

Tale of Two Cities is Burden's G-rated 1981 room-sized installation, which the museum purchased in 1987. The museum is certainly squeezing out its money's worth.

With a veritable mountain of children's toys—from Matchbox-sized tractors to Transformers and Go-Bots—Burden formed two neighboring cities separated by castles on a stone mountain. Inhabitants march in lock step against one another through the mounds of sand that make up their soil. Binoculars hang from the wall, so one can peer deep into these fern-lined villages and see the bustle and fabulous detail. When I was there, an adolescent boy in cammies stared intently at every inch of the giant installation. I don't know whether he was a future artist or a future Timothy McVeigh.

It's Terribly Deep, or could be to any critic worth her salt; like a rapper freestyling, I could stream-of-consciousness a few thousand words as to Youth and Innocence and Brutality and The Lord of the Flies (which naturally leads to discussions of Survivor, hence Big Brother) and Whimsy and Projection and Ideation and the Politics of Play—the Cops and Robbers and Cowboys and Indians that have evolved into Doom and Quake and Columbine.

But that's all bullshit. Because what Burden did doesn't carry any heavy freight.

He played with toys.

The end.

The result is charming and delightful and obsessive-compulsive in the funnest of ways, and I enjoyed it greatly. But there is no deeper meaning. And for once, the value of a work of art has nothing to do with my feelings toward it. Odd, that.

It certainly wouldn't be fair to judge Burden's work against works that came later—works, in fact, that he might've inspired. But nobody said life was fair.

And what you see with Burden's intricate toy battle is the germ that would become fully realized almost 20 years later with Sandow Birk's "In Smog and Thunder: Historical Works From the Great War of the Californias" (on display at the Laguna Art Museum till Oct. 15). Birk takes child's play and goes one better: he uses an adult's knowledge of semiotics and urban planning and creates a bloodless war amid cities so detailed they even have a garbage dump.

Toys in museums are wonderful things, evoking the viewer's own sense of latent creativity and instilling a sense of can-do joy, but they're still just toys. And there's an eerie stasis: Burden has set up his war and is ready to play, but there's no outcome because there are no kids. There's no money shot.

Birk takes the play war and gives it substance. He gives it a history, even a hagiography, commemorating the deeds of fictional heroes from both sides (in his case, San Francisco vs. the City of Angels). He remembers the grueling marches that depleted the 20s from every ATM along the California coast and the naval battles; he sanctifies them with corporate logos. In one Birk canvas, a dying man holds a spork, echoing Archibald McNeal Willard's Spirit of '76—in which the dying man held aloft a cap, even when there was no hope in his cause.

Burden's piece is not lazy; that would become the modus operandi for LA artists later in the '80s. But it isn't complete. It is friendly and unchallenging, even though it is ostensibly lethal. In two years, the museum will break it out again so people can come and bask in the play.

Now do we get to see Wegman's dogs again? Woof!

Chris Burden's A Tale of Two Cities at the ORANGE COUNTY MUSEUM OF ART AT NEWPORT BEACH, 850 San Clemente Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 759-1122. Through Feb. 11, 2001; Sandow Birk's In Smog and Thunder: Historical Works From the Great War of the Californias at the Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Dr., Laguna Beach, (949) 494-8971. Through Oct. 15.


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