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January 02, 2014 9:15 AM Curtorial Malpractice

By Michael O'Hare

Chris Burden put himself on the map a few decades ago with some rather puerile enactments of risk. He had himself shot in the arm with a .22, and nailed through the hands to the back of a VW beetle while its engine raced for a couple of minutes. A nail between your phalanges, and a small bullet that doesn’t hit your humerus (as it apparently didn’t) are not the same as being crucified or being seriously shot by someone who really means you ill, not at all; painful, but pretty certain to heal properly. This is the stuff of kids playing dare games, dressed up in arty garments for business. No, we do not learn about real violence, nor Hitler’s ‘people’s car’, nor automobile culture [ideas critics have tried to extract, from, or inject into, them] from this stuff, any more than we learn much about someone from an armful of tattoos acquired in a youthful failure of judgment. Nor does the medium/style really point anywhere: is the next development having an arm amputated, or an eye put out, or…or…I know, an ear cut off! If a couple of the people who will commit suicide next year orchestrate it as a work of art, will our culture have advanced?

Burden has not gone in that direction, but moved on to sculpture of the sort that you don’t have to really see to experience; the common theme is to inflate a fairly simple and long-familiar idea into a very large, heavy realization. The current show that fills the New Museum, where he is billed as one of the most important American contemporary artists, is nothing like that early stuff, though it has a similar flavor of immaturity, now unleashed by adequate funding. He is now much into big scale models of bigger things, especially Meccano/Erector set models of bridges, and I should note that unlike (for example) Mark di Suvero, whose enormous pointless assemblages of stuff lack any discernible craft or understanding of the nature of his materials, Burden’s work is competent and craftsmanlike. I would have been proud of the bridges had I made them at the age of 12 or 13. I couldn’t have, because they require a lot of custom parts in the style of Meccano elements, nor did I have a big enough set, so I’m envious of his resources for this kind of thing, but that doesn’t feel like a considerable response for large works of art.An enormous, room-sized diorama of a “war” between two towns, featuring all sorts of toys, is an advance on my cousin’s HO train layout, and probably a hoot for people who used to play with toy soldiers, anachronistically mingling everything from robots with swords to airplanes at amusingly inconsistent scales, but lacks the wit and resonance of a single Cornell box. A stack of gold bricks hidden in an alcove had a line of people waiting to look at them, and a visitor helpfully advised us away from the queue, saying there were good photos of it on the web. I took a minute to imagine, inside my personal head, a pile of real gold bricks, and moved along.

We did get a couple of truly weird objects. One is two, count them, two, life-sized copies of 16c siege mortars with stone projectiles to fit; no indication that they are ever fired; they just sit there. Isn’t there a rule about a gun drawn in the first act having to be fired in the second? I thought immediately of the Punkin Chunkin classic, trying to give the piece some context, but I’m pretty sure that’s not the right approach. They aren’t forgeries, nor originals, so I don’t quite see how to take them as different from the little hippos that have made the Metropolitan a fortune, but that no-one in the world would put on display in a gallery with a straight face.

Burden continues to explore the implications of a central artistic theme visual generative principle gadget, namely a trunnion (what the mortar barrels pivot on for aiming), putting a beam on one, with a small car hanging on the short end and a meteorite that weighs much less than the car hanging on the long end. They balance exactly, can you believe; wow, a lever! This would have been ever so much more so if the car had been a 2-8-2 Mikado. As the guards don’t let us give it a little nudge up or down, we don’t get to see it pivot, but the idea explodes out of its narrow back and forth confines in a large steel flywheel, revved up to 200 rpm twice a day by running a motorcycle rear tire against it, that can ‘tip’ completely around, and indeed keeps spinning for a long time, being very heavy and set in good bearings. Wow again, a big, heavy flywheel has a lot of angular momentum! Maybe if I hadn’t been at the Exploratorium only two days before I would have encountered these high-school physics demonstrations with more awe.

A restored Ford truck with a crane on the back, supports a cube with “One Ton” cast into its sides (what you remember falling through the air hilariously in a thousand comic book sequences and probably, Who Killed Roger Rabbit?). It is about the right size to weigh a ton if it is cast iron, and the front of the truck is pretty far up on its springs. But although the piece is labeled to assure us about the date and completely operational status of the truck (unlike the mortars), in a piece of inexcusable curatorial oversight, nowhere are we told what kind of ton it is, so it is impossible to confidently interpret the work! Obviously it would mean something altogether different if it is a metric ton, or a long ton, or 2000 lb, so you take your pick with 2:1 odds of being completely wrong, and I am not going to write all three alternative interpretations unless someone crosses my palm with silver.

Burden is also well known for dropping scrap steel beams of various sizes from a crane, endways into wet concrete, making an enormous bristly thing along the lines of his wife’s assemblages. They stand up at odd angles when dropped, which would be astonishing if the concrete were doing it, but obviously what’s holding them upright is that they punch into the soil below. Neither the labeling of the video nor any narration explains this, which irritates me; it’s not presented as a magic trick, so why not explain what we’re seeing? I heard several visitors puzzling over what was really happening. After all, the presentation of the show was very heavy on the engineering and technology angle of this body of work.

The major curatorial fail of this exhibition, as the reader may have discerned, is presenting this stuff with a straight face as considerable, but the interpretive and explanatory labeling that consistently fails to answer obvious questions is a much more widespread problem. My current gripes along these lines pertain, first, to the really wonderful big Hockney show at the De Young (go!). One large gallery presents Hockney’s reimaginings of the Claude Lorrain Sermon on the Mount, with the story of how Hockney virtually cleaned the darkened varnish off a photograph of the original so he could really see it (by the way, Hockney’s engagement with technology upstages Burden’s to a fare-the-well). But unless I just missed it, there was no reproduction of the Claude for us to look at; I had to click it up on my phone and squint at a tiny image. I find the implicit idea that anyone qualified to be in the De Young must of course have that painting in his head for reference either boneheaded or condescending, the kind of thing that makes a potential new audience not come back after they try it, and this don’t do nobody no good.

The other fail was in a gallery presenting reproductions of hundreds of paintings over several centuries that Hockney assembled to explore the idea that artists had learned to use a camera lucida to make more realistic pictures around the early sixteenth century and, I guess, gone on doing so secretly ever since. The idea is pretty cockeyed on several grounds, but if you’re going to show us three walls of a work dedicated to this specific conjecture, couldn’t you at least show us the device itself, and explain how it works?

Yesterday we checked out the Kandinsky show at the Neue Galerie and tripped on one more irritating instance of this kind. Kandinsky was famously synaesthetic and very interested in the relationship between music and plastic arts, and among the works on view were his stage set designs for a ballet set to Pictures at an Exhibition. The museum provides really nice audio tour gadgets, but (again, unless I missed it) there was no way to hear or remind oneself of the music that went with each scene, and I had to find it on Spotify on my phone. Grrrr…

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

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Michael O'Hare is a Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley.

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