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A Dream for the City of the Future. Chris Burden's Metropolis II at LACMA.

by LiveModern Webmaster last modified Jan 24, 2012 10:10 AM
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by Edward Lifson ( last modified Jan 23, 2012



After mounting 65-foot Erector Set skyscraper at Rockefeller Center in 2008, and that same year placing a diverse collection of vintage streetlights like lit columns at a main entry to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), artist Chris Burden astounds us again.

Beginning today, LACMA presents Chris Burden's Metropolis II.

Eleven hundred miniature cars race along 18 lanes of traffic around 25 buildings. Given the miniature scale, they speed the equivalent of about 240 miles per hour. 13 trains mosey along through this mini-city as well.

Art that makes you feel young, even for a fleeting moment, is priceless. That a grown man built this car-racing track and made it smarter than just a boyhood fantasy is compelling on its own terms. Because it's about cars, we might even think we can learn something about life in Los Angeles, this youthful city that once again seems like it will never grow up. 

Chris Burden at the opening of Metropolis II

Burden does not claim Metropolis II as a utopian vision, and unlike Fritz Lang's 1927 film Metropolis which inspired him, this is not a dystopian vision either. "Only in the speed of the cars is this the city of the future," he says. "The city of the future is that every car is going to be controlled." Burden gets serious here. "Rigidly controlled. Do you know what I'm saying? Controlled by Google, not by a driver. It's insane that somebody's who's drunk or having a heart attack or is a teenager on speed, can drive a two-ton diesel projectile; it's insane! My dream for the city of the future is that the cars go faster and be totally automated."

"I want to evoke the energy of a city, and the sound is a really important part of it," Chris Burden says. "It provides a tension, more than anything else. It's not just seeing the cars go around, it's the noise level." 

After a few minutes the sound becomes oppressive, it's hard to talk in this room. The walls are hard and bare and the soundscape is an unknown one, like a digital sound file sped up, with no off switch. And no natural sounds or sights to soften it. "Nature is just, simply suggested by the different colored phenolic panels that the buildings rest on, so there's green, brown, or light tan," Burden says. "They're totally abstract."

What Burden fears. "We considered having water at one point," he says. "We considered having canals and a water flow. But my experience with water is not a good one. Everything that uses water, leaks. If it can leak, it will leak. Water is the universal solvent. We decided against it."

No trees in this city? He answers quickly, "Well, where do you stop? I mean, you could keep going on and on. There could be little people, there could be lights that turn on and off in the buildings. I'm not trying to make an architectural model in the traditional sense."

"The buildings are fanciful," he says, "none are based on actual buildings, except maybe the 'Viagra Tower,' the Eiffel Tower."

The most recognizable building in this L.A. fantasy, is the most recognizable structure in-- Paris. Or is it Las Vegas? Or the homogenization of cities, brought on in large part by the automobile. 

Barthes said of the one in Paris, this symbol of modernity, of communication, and science confronts "the great itineraries of our dreams." 
“Eiffel saw his Tower in the form of a serious object, rational, useful; men return it to him in the form of a great baroque dream which quite naturally touches on the borders of the irrational ... architecture is always dream and function, expression of a utopia and instrument of a convenience.”   Roland Barthes, The Eiffel Tower and Other Mythologies

"We used a lot of wooden blocks, which were real versatile for us," Burden says. "We used Lincoln Logs, Legos, Erector sets, plexiglass, actual glass, and Meccano. Pottery Barn, a couple of years ago made a thin-plywood House of Cards, bigger ones. And they were relatively expensive so I guess they didn't sell well. So we were able to amass a massive collection of them when they went on sale. And those were useful."

Architecture was not Chris Burden's priority. "We got it operational without any buildings in it. So the buildings had to fit the confined spaces." I tell him it sounds as if there was about as much "urban planning" in this piece as there was in L.A. itself. Burden smiles. "Maybe more," he says. "We considered the entirety at once, which is not something L.A. does."  

And he mounted modern architecture on top of a base of Lincoln Logs, making layers of history seen less often in L.A. than in most of the world's great cities.

The religious buildings, Burden says are just "indications. The one is obviously, quote, a Christian church, and the other, with the onion domes is meant to indicate 'the other religion.'" He smiles, maybe a little nervously. "Be it Hindu, Muslim, it's undefined. It's just meant to evoke "the other." 

I wish Chris Burden had designed the room Metropolis II inhabits. As it is, it feels sterile, not a delightful place to be. The city/object/sculpture does not organically touch the ground plane, but stands clinically slightly above the floor. (Of course it's cordoned off from touch, but I'm sure kids will want to try to grab a speed-racer.  Parents- word is LACMA will sell the miniature cars when their useful life in this work has ended.) LACMA can be so good at installing art to make it come alive. They've recently hired artists such as Jorge Pardo and Franz West for installations; West's installation of the Art of the Pacific, with tea-stained walls, are some of the wonderful museum rooms in the nation. As collector Nicolas Berggruen has loaned Metropolis II to LACMA for at least ten years, I'd like to see Chris Burden come back and improve the room. This would give the experience more impact. At Burden's studio in Topanga, where he first built this, you're surrounded by nature and sensuousness. This metallic piece with many hard-edges would benefit from softer, more lush, dare I say naturally noise-dampening surroundings. That would make the installation more of its place. In L.A., nature threatens to take back the street.

After about half an hour in the room, I became hoarse from having to shout, to talk to friends. That noise is important Burden says, to recreate the stress of city life. But even he shows pretty strong relief when Metropolis II turns off. This machinery requires breaks or it could burn out. LACMA plans to turn the work on only Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. The general schedule, subject to change, is:

          Friday: 12:30–2 p.m.; 3–4:30 p.m.; 5–6:30 p.m.; 7–8:30 p.m.
          Saturday and Sunday: 11:30 a.m.–1 p.m.; 2–3:30 p.m.; 4–5:30 p.m.; 6–7:30 p.m.

Check LACMA's schedule for times.

65 year-old Chris Burden, originally from Boston, trained as a sculptor, a minimalist. "As a minimalist, my teachers were always trying to distill what the essence of the experience was. So as I studied sculpture more and more I came to the conclusion that sculpture was activity. A sculpture forces the viewer to be active. So if you reduce that, as a minimalist, what's the essence of sculpture? It's human activity. That was the basis for many of my performances."

In 1974 he gained notoriety with Trans-fixed, in which he had himself crucified atop a Volkswagen Beetle. Many of Burden's works deal with cars, trains and technology.

"At some point in the mid-70's to late 70's I started making objects again. I actually made a car from scratch, called the B-Car. Since then I've made many objects and a lot of them are performative objects, including Metropolis II. I don't have to do the performance anymore, the art is performing for me."

Burden, well-known for having a friend shoot him in the left arm as a work of art in 1971 (see the short video here), draws a line without much trouble between his art that must have been very difficult to look at, and this colorful, toy-like crowd-pleasing piece. "There's tension in both, and they both intrigue people," he says with pride, "so there is some sort of tie-in."  

Each of the 1100 little sports cars, sedans, trucks and vans was custom-made in China. This might be Burden's most prescient move. How long until cars made in China rock the US auto industry?  

The cars of Metropolis II get carried up a conveyor belt, about eight feet, to speed back down and around. Here, the artist's assistant puts in earplugs and stands in the center, ready to right a car that might get stuck. The human in this Sisyphean construct looks out of scale and out of place. Like a Colossus, no, vulnerable and lost in a new and changing world, they stand like modern Adam and Eve. 

And yet, in the compelling vision of our future that Chris Burden sets in motion with Metropolis II, it's reassuring to know that at least it has humanity at its heart.





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