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Chris Burden emerged in the 1970s as an extreme performance artist (to some extent almost a sideshow freak), willing to put himself in perilous situations solely for art’s sake. He locked himself in a locker for five days, crawled through a room of broken glass, pretended to be dead in the middle of a highway, and had his assistant shoot him in the arm. His performances were sometimes interpreted as crucifixions, or more commonly as acts of masochism, yet often as a martyr to an empty audience. Once, in a performance Shout Piece he sat on a platform hanging in the middle of a gallery with speakers amplifying his voice throughout the room. When people entered the room he repeatedly shouted, “Get the fuck out! Get out immediately!” The sound of his voice reverberated with such extraordinarily high frequency that most people left quickly.
David Bowie mentioned Burden in the song Joe the Lion, referencing the time the artist nailed himself to a Volkswagon, with the lyric, “Nail me to a car and I’ll tell you who you are.” But really it’s not only his own flesh that Burden was seeking the breaking point of, its larger social and physical structures.
“Extreme Measures” at the New Museum, on view now through January 12, focuses on Burden’s later work, where he transferred his desire for testing physical and moral boundaries in his body to his sculptures and installations. On one floor a motorcycle spins a giant wheel, creating a thrilling and disconcerting adrenaline rush. Another floor is filled with bridge replicas, suggesting a hobbyist’s knack for assembling tiny structures, a far cry from his radical performances.
“Chris Burden’s art lives in a world of double binds and indeterminate realities: beyond simple truths and valences, binary rules and protocols—a world where danger, poetry, and absurdity collide, and struggles around power and control are ever-present,” said New Museum Director Lisa Phillips. His work is drawn together in his need to harness manpower and play God with his installations. Still, other works such as L.A.P.D. Uniforms expressed the danger of mankind, where massive police uniforms are tacked to the wall, emphasizing the capacity for corruption in organizations where power often goes unchecked.
His original vision for the New Museum survey was to have the gallery completely empty, and adorn the outside of the museum with sculptures and found objects because he dislikes the design of the building. Burden has never been one to be intimidated by the impossible, if anything he’s intrigued by it, forever playing “chicken” with the art world. The eventual compromise allowed for Burden to indulge in a few architectural attachments, like a 30-foot replica of the Twin Towers on the roof and a sailboat hanging from the front wall.
Though Burden remains a crucial figure in contemporary art, this is his first major exhibition in the United States for over 25 years and his first New York survey. According to Phillips, much of his work is not even known. Burden has become increasingly elusive and skeptical of the public eye, and now resides with his wife, artist Nancy Rubins, in Topanga Canyon.