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It seems as if they’ve dragged Chris Burden out of oblivion, and it looks like more than one person is going to be left blushing. The myth of the aggressive artist, the Evel Knievel of the seventies art scene, presents his retrospective at the New Museum, , in a sort of canonical explanation of his work that above all seeks to be applauded.
Since 1988 not one solo-show by Burden had been seen in an American museum, so an exercising of muscle by the museum-spectacular apparatus was to be expected, and well, here it is. Beginning with two structures, right at the top of the museum, that are reminiscent of the twin towers– it seems we are on a roll of paying homage, see the latest by Bansky– followed by the Ghost Ship nailed half way down the façade and ending with the large scale pieces that seem hemmed in within the interior of this mountain of cubes. All this with an ostentatious thrust of ambition, so far removed from the heartrending simplicity of his initial performances.
Nonetheless, there is a counterpoint in the proximity of the presentation, Burden slips in and talks to us about his intentions from the posters and suddenly that enigmatic, moustached face from his video appears before us with the documentation of some of his pieces from the period 1971-1974. In fact that is how the show begins, with this video installed in a passageway, while the rest of the space is occupied with dossiers, which reproduce the content of his books Chris Burden 71-73 and Chris Burden 74-77. One way of avoiding the embarrassing re-enactments a la Abramovic, for which one is grateful, though they are still a re-enactment, as this way of presenting the documentation was already done, with the same type of tables and chairs, in an exhibition of 1974 in the Ronald Feldman gallery.
From the cube with the documentation, we go down to the rest of the cubes that accumulate the rest of his works of engineering, the search for the limits of the material, or the violence with which material is accumulated in this dump called the world. So we find the video of beams being thrown from heights, the mountain of gold ingots (4million dollars) around which dance some little pagan figures made of matches, a Porsche and a meteorite in perfect equilibrium or the motorbike that awakes a huge steering wheel of inertia. All until one reaches the installation A Tale of Two Cities (1981), where five thousand toys of different precedence represent an unfinished battle between two cities. The obsession with models, bridges and submarines, that don’t just exhaust all physical possibilities but also confront the visitor with the fear of finding themselves faced with the work of a compulsive macho.
They say that the curator, the director Lisa Phillips, had to convince Burden to include pieces in the interior, reticent as he is about museums, he preferred the exterior, which granted him a scale in accord with his works. We could even question if there really has been any curating, as the show is not that fortunate in the selection or placing of the pieces in a difficult space. It’s also said that Burden didn’t appear until the day of the opening, so that no doubt it would have been better to pay heed to him and cut off Bowery (street) with trucks, bridges and tow trucks, and let him expand his challenges, show the intrinsic violence in each object, even his body and forget about the claustrophobic interior of a museum, that between ourselves, has been off track for a while now.
And in the end we are left with Burden, the anti-system Burden, the artist who self-promoted himself in television adverts, in an era when crowd-funding didn’t oblige artists to show their best face on Facebook, the one who spent five days shut up in locker, and who didn’t wear Givenchy, or the one who by way of a participatory installation truly, seriously, wanted to demolish the museum, and not just through the practice of critical blah, blah, blah.
"A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world" (John Le Carré)