Chris Burden: Extreme Measures

Chris Burden has had quite the interesting career. At a glance, the American performance artist has, all in the name of art, orchestrated a controlled shooting of himself, nailed to the rear bumper of a Volkswagen and enclosed himself in a tiny locker for five days.
Bemusing to some, magnificent to others, the first major survey of his work in the US in over a quarter of a century at the New Museum in New York reopens the debate about his contribution to art.
It is, if anything, utterly fascinating viewing, with the New York Times’ correctly understanding it as a show that liberates Burden from the “clutches of history” and helping “expand and rebalance our understanding” of what he is trying to do.
Sometimes you feel intoxicated by the sheer madness of some of his installations. Take for example his colossal 1985 sculpture the Tower of Power, a lavish pyramid-like structure made up of real gold ingots, surrounded by reverent matchstick men with sewing needles.
It is quite reasonably ludicrous but at the same time brilliant beyond comprehension. In today’s prices, the literal worth of the sculpture is approximately £2.6 million. Now, market value may determine it to be worth more than that, but one thing is obvious, it is an expensive work of art.
Consequently, it comes with its own 24/7 security, understandable of course, but then there are works of art worth a lot more than this that do not have an individual stationed by its side. Welcome then, to the peculiar world of Burden.
The New Museum is certainly one institution happy to fall down the rabbit hole, as it has dedicated all five floors of its establishment to the show, thereby acting as a psychedelic conduit through which we are transported into the mind of the transgressive artist.
Moreover, the museum also stepped up to the mark – well, beyond it really – and secured two of Burden’s most iconic works Ghost Ship (2005) and Twin Quasi Legal Skyscraper (2013) to the facade of its building.
There is, despite the obvious provocative point of references that suggest some sort of discontent with society – more explicit in his early works – an energetic quality about the artist. Many of his pieces simply look like overblown toys that if miniature would be enjoyed by youngsters in their bedrooms or in the garden.
Make no mistake though, his works are serious, extremely explorative of the human condition and a deep meditation on man’s relationship with machinery and how that feeds into humanity’s understanding about itself.
What happens the more estranged we become from nature? Is the dystopian world imagined by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World, George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale? Watch this space.
Chris Burden: Extreme Measures at the New Museum runs until January 12th 2014.
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