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A Sculpture of Our Transportation Future

A new kinetic sculpture in Los Angeles envisions a city with smoothly flowing cars traveling at 240 mph

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Reuters

With thousands of cars whizzing around, it’s hard not to feel a little anxious. They zip around tight corners and down sloping, curving overpasses, creating a buzz that is noticeably louder than the thoughts in our own heads. Watching them can make one dizzy, and trying to follow them as they pass is almost impossible.

That these are only toy cars in a large and elaborate kinetic sculpture is at least partially comforting. That they are also a vision of a maybe-not-so-absurd future is a little worrying.

Metropolis II is the new installation opening this weekend at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Created by artist Chris Burden, the piece is a massive mini-city of towering buildings interwoven and surrounded at all heights by tiny street-like tracks that carry 1,100 toy cars quickly and noisily around, like blood cells in a network of veins.

Taking up about 500 square feet and climbing at some points nearly ten feet in the air, the sculpture is part machine, part momentum and part dystopian vision of the future of car travel. The tiny cars are pulled up three six-lane conveyor belts to the top of the sculpture and then let loose to drive down the curving streets, zipping around bends and turns of roadway that under- and over-pass each other in a frenetic weave of movement.

It’s an engine-like mass of movement that always seems on the edge of calamity. But it operates in a smooth and ultimately efficient flow. LACMA director Michael Govan calls it "an epic effort." A sign of its complexity, the sculpture will only run on Fridays and weekends in hour-and-a-half sessions – with a human attendant on hand to prevent any major blockages.

The sculpture has been in the works for five years, and its sheer scale is impressive. This film by Henry Joost & Ariel Schulman give a feeling for the mass of the sculpture, then still in Burden’s southern California studio.

Somewhat like a large-scale Erector set construction site, the steel frame of the sculpture holds onto 18 roadways that loop around, joining and splitting and circling back to the center of the piece, where the custom-made cars are once again collected in three six-lane conveyors that slowly drag them, bumper to bumper, upward to run the course again. The cars speed above a few comparatively quaint train sets and around tall models of buildings and at what, in scale, is the equivalent of cars on our freeways zooming by at 240 miles per hour.

“When you’re stuck in traffic, think of this sculpture,” Burden said at a recent preview of the sculpture.

Burden is well-known for an artwork he did in the 1970s in which he had a friend shoot him in the arm, and more recently for his 2008 work Urban Light – a gridded display of 202 restored street lights in front of LACMA. Metropolis II expands on a similar idea explored by Burden in Metropolis I, another smaller kinetic sculpture interpreting urban mobility. With this new sculpture, Burden builds out a vision of the city as it could be.

“It’s a hopeful future,” Burden says. “Cars will have an average speed of 240 miles per hour as soon as Google gets all their cars up and running. Because the future of automobile transportation is that there won’t be drivers anymore.”

This is a familiar brand of utopianism – of fast-paced and extra-efficient mobility systems – that we’ve been feeding ourselves for decades. Burden’s is a practical step down from the flying cars of so much science fiction, but still a prediction that envisions a sort of cartoon future.

That the sculpture is in Los Angeles is sure to draw some connections in people’s minds. It’s location here is – depending on your bias – totally appropriate, a warning, a capitulating admission of the city’s fate, a sign of its status in the art world or an honor heralding it as the birthplace of this new future.

To take the sculpture as a comprehensive prediction of the future of this or any city is, at the very least, a stretch. But watching it function unavoidably brings to mind some self-reflection on at least this city if not others, launching thoughts of what could potentially be.

Photo credit: David McNew / Reuters

About the Author

  • Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.