While the title of Chris Burden’s retrospective, “Extreme Measures,” promises thrills and even danger, the exhibition begins in the classroomlike confines of the museum’s fifth floor. Between 1971 and 1977, Burden risked serious injury to himself and others in a series of performances that came to epitomize radical art in Southern California. Casting aside the perennial hand-wringing about how to preserve and institutionalize performance art, the New Museum curators arrived at an elegant solution for presenting these works: a few short films documenting Burden’s actions and a set of sturdy binders arranged on desks. Flipping through the latter (yes, binders full of Burden), visitors could see photographs paired with the artist’s own straightforward descriptions of what he did: living inside a school locker for days, crawling through broken glass, attempting to breathe water, shooting at a jumbo jet in flight, being shot himself.
Instead of bemoaning our distance from the original events, we should be grateful for this kind of mediation. Nobody in their right mind would want to be around Burden doing a “piece.” For a project he enacted while a student at UC Irvine he sat on a raised platform in a gallery and shouted at anyone attempting to enter to “Get out! Get the fuck out!” And this proved to be very sound advice, not only because his audience could be placed in real physical danger, as when he nearly lit a building on fire for Do You Believe in Television? (1976), but because the literal presence of the artist may be the least interesting part of Burden’s practice. Today, we might envy the small group that witnessed Shoot (1971), a now-legendary performance that resulted in the artist receiving friendly fire in the arm from a .22 rifle. Yet as time passes and the singular gunshot fades into a larger historical backdrop, we have to ask if the work’s value really lies in the artist’s heroic gesture of placing his life on the line for his art, a proposition that smacks of warmed-over postwar expressionism. Or does the piece continue to resonate as a powerful image, one in which the individual human figure serves as a kind of microcosm of a larger world of violence then raging from inner-city Los Angeles to Vietnam?
“Extreme Measures” underscores how forcefully Burden adopted the latter proposition by transferring the intensity of his performances to other, less physically damaging, microcosmic structures. Sports cars, motorcycles, erector sets and plastic toys have been among the materials of Burden’s art since the 1980s, and the museum’s galleries, filled to capacity with roughly a dozen works, evoke a Neverland-esque fantasy of male adolescence. The curatorial texts posit that Burden uses these toys in an “extreme” way to create works of phenomenal scale and intricacy. But this explanation is not quite satisfying, even if the intense focus required to design and build a 100-foot suspension bridge from an erector set is hard to fathom. Rather than extremity, Burden’s work may really be about efficiency; he compresses vast systems of power, labor, energy and violence into physical structures that convey the idea of immensity within the confines of the gallery. All the Submarines of the United States of America (1987) is a visualization of the Cold War military-industrial complex rendered in a fleet of 625 tiny submarines, each suspended from the ceiling by wire. A Tale of Two Cities (1981) uses more than 5,000 plastic toys arranged on a 1,200-square-foot landscape of sand and rocks to envision the complex horrors of total war between two city-states.
At an earlier moment it might have been possible to marvel at the sheer size of such works, but today, as gigantism has become the norm of so much art, it’s easier to see how specifically calibrated the scale is. Burden’s works are models that exist on the edge of real life, just as his early performances were symbolic works that frequently crossed into real violence. The 35-foot-tall twin towers he placed on the outside of the museum inhabit this threshold: while not quite buildings in themselves, they join the New York skyline as eerie monuments to catastrophe.