Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
Few others thought as critically about life in the mechanical age.
At the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s new entry plaza on L.A.’s Miracle Mile stands a forest of street lamps. There are 202 of them, mainly Southern California originals from the early 20th century, aligned in 12 meticulous rows. Afternoon or evening, couples embrace amid the glowing ranks. Children play hide-and-seek. Tourists pose with a backdrop that radiates the complex spirit of Los Angeles.
Chris Burden’s Urban Light (2008) has quickly become an iconic L.A. sight. But like much of the late artist’s work, it is also a meditation on the power, machinery, and architecture of urban life. Burden, who died on Sunday morning at the age of 69, never proclaimed a specific interest in urban planning. But when it comes to thinking critically about what makes cities run, Burden’s genre-spanning career places him among the most useful, inquisitive artists of our time.
Burden rose to art-world fame by quite literally applying modern machinery to his body, transcending incredible demonstrations of pain. In 1971, shortly after receiving an MFA from UC Irvine, he had a friend shoot him in the arm in a gallery piece called Shoot. The next year, he bundled himself in a canvas tarpaulin and lay down on the pavement of La Cienega Boulevard, flares set around him to alert passing cars. In 1973, he shoved electrical wires into his chest. In 1974, he nailed his palms to the back of Volkswagen. In Through the Night Softly, which Burden broadcast on national television as a 10-second commercial spot, he crawled through broken glass on Main Street in Los Angeles, hands tied behind his back.
"I had an intuitive sense that being shot is as American as apple pie," he told People magazine in 1989 about Shoot. "We see people being shot on TV, we read about it in the newspaper. Everybody has wondered what it's like. So I did it."
After he accepted a professorship at UCLA in 1978, Burden left behind body art in favor of large-scale, sculptural works. Yet still he engaged with the powerful social and physical underpinnings of city life, and always with an undercurrent of dark humor. He built cars, bridges, and Erector-set skyscrapers. In 1981’s A Tale of Two Cities, Burden used thousands of children’s toys to construct two fantasy city-states poised for war. After the 1994 Rodney King riots, he strung together 30 oversized LAPD uniforms, sleeves outstretched so that they appear to be holding hands.
And in 2010, Metropolis II arrived at LACMA. It took Burden and his assistants four years to construct the mega-mini-city, a towering pile of roads, train tracks, buildings and multi-lane highways. There are 1,100 plastic toy cars whizzing through the sculpture’s tracks, at a scale speed of 240 miles per hour. It takes up a full room at LACMA, and is attended by at least one ear-plugged museum worker at a time (it is loud, and prone to pile-ups).
I’ve stood before Metropolis II many times for a half hour or more, transported by a world in motion that’s at once like the present and like something from the future. Like Urban Light, it has become a destination piece for the museum, and even for L.A.—and speaks to a somewhat more optimistic view of mechanized life than his earlier works.
"It's modeling something that's on the twilight of extinction: the era of the 'free car,'" Burden told Co.Design. "Those days are numbered, but I think it's a good thing.”
In a special exhibition starting May 18, LACMA will show Burden’s final sculpture, “a lyrical homage to Alberto Santos-Dumont, the Brazilian aviator who flew the first practical dirigible around the Eiffel Tower in a momentous 1901 flight,” according to Christopher Knight at the Los Angeles Times.
A man in the air, in spite of gravity: Like the rest of Burden’s work, it sounds as if it grapples with intersections of industrialism, architecture, and the transcendence of the human body.