For someone who has had himself shot, burned and crucified--all in the name of art--Chris Burden looked remarkably well Sunday at the Newport Harbor Art Museum, which has mounted a 20-year retrospective of his work.
Perhaps that is why, in a question session about what motivates him, one of his first questioners asked whether he has sustained any permanent injuries to his body. She wanted to know, specifically, whether his crucifixion on the roof of a Volkswagen had left any scars on his hands or damaged them.
Burden, who has the appearance of a beefy stevedore with a baby face, held up his palms. "No scars, nothing," he answered in a deadpan voice, the expression in his eyes unreadable as to whether he was irked or amused by the question.
The woman's curiosity was only natural. After all, the museum is showing--as relics--the nails that were driven through Burden's palms, the wire he once used to give himself an electric shock, the push pins others stuck in him, the glass shards through which he belly-crawled naked.
Burden probably has to face the same curiosity wherever he goes. Chief curator Paul Schimmel even introduced the Los Angeles artist by recalling that during his first encounter with Burden at an art gallery in San Francisco some years ago "we hoped he would show up and do something dreadful to himself."
If anybody was hoping that that would happen Sunday, none of the 150 people who packed the museum's auditorium said so. And Burden, for his part, made it clear that his performance pieces are long since past--not because he has grown older and his body can't take them anymore, but simply because his interests have shifted.
Asked whether his work reflected a sense of personal isolation or alienation--the closest anybody came to addressing the subject of masochism--Burden replied: "I really don't feel that isolated, living in a city with millions of people. It's the opposite. I fantasize being alone and being alienated. But actually . . . I think my work comes from being involved."
With what? He didn't say.
Burden, 42, said ever since his first performance piece as a graduate art student at UC Irvine in 1971, when he had himself imprisoned in a locker for five consecutive days, he simply had considered his performances a form of "sculpture without an object."
"The locker piece was a real breakthrough," Burden recalled, because he realized that he could create artworks without having to make them. He could do away with equipment as well. His performances are, he said, "the result of minimalist thinking."
From the time he built a one-man car in 1975, however, he has devoted much of his work to re-creating prototypical artifacts of modern technology.
Burden has built a primitive TV, for instance, to demonstrate the principle of instantaneous transmission of images. He has engineered a wheel that spins for hours to illustrate the storage of kinetic energy. He has made a 19th-Century apparatus that can measure the speed of light in a laboratory. He has built a low-friction model of an air-cushioned sled to show how the sled works.
"Instead of having to buy your car, you could make one," said Burden, comparing himself to Robinson Crusoe, who re-created the technology that his civilization took for granted.
"It's sort of an absurd idea, but . . . what you lose in sophistication of the product you gain in personal knowledge."
Embracing the idea that his art had veered toward a form of didactic tinkering, Burden went so far as to note that "if Vincent van Gogh were alive today, he'd be doing what I'm doing and not painting."
Nobody chose to debate or explore the point.
Instead, Burden was asked whether he intended to make a political point in such works as "All the Submarines of the United States of America" (a collection of 625 model submarines, representing every sub ever built by the Navy) or "The Reason for the Neutron Bomb" (a grid of 50,000 nickels and matchsticks, representing "all the Soviet tanks in Eastern Europe").
His answer was no: "I just wanted to see that information in a different form."
(According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, there are 48,000 Soviet tanks in Eastern Europe.)
The artist said he often strove for "humor from a distance" in the paradoxes of his work. The piece of art that confronts museum-goers at the front door, "Samson," is an ominous Rube Goldberg invitation to tear down the museum walls: Each patron passes through a turnstile connected to a gearbox that turns a 100-ton jack. The jack pushes two horizontal timbers against the supporting walls of the museum. Theoretically, if enough people come to the Burden retrospective, they could destroy the building.
"I don't think it's going to happen," he assured the audience.
As for the centerpiece of the retrospective, "A Tale of Two Cities" (a giant sandbox construction of two miniature city-states at war), Burden admitted that its sprawl had "kind of gotten out of hand."
In fact, he seemed to revel in calling it "goofy."
An exhibit of work by Chris Burden continues through June 12 at the Newport Harbor Art Museum, 850 San Clemente Drive, Newport Beach. Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays; noon to 5 p.m. Sundays. Admission: $2 to $3. Information: (714) 759-1122.