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‘Three Ghost Ships’ and Their Captain

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Kristine McKenna is a regular contributor to Calendar

The good news is that Chris Burden, one of the most thought-provoking artists to emerge since the ‘60s, lives in Los Angeles. The bad news is that each new work he completes tends to be snatched up by European collectors before his hometown even gets wind of it.

The list of sculptures Burden has completed and immediately shipped out from his Topanga Canyon studio is awesome indeed, and it’s discouraging to hear the 50-year-old artist say “my experience with stuff that goes to museum shows in Europe is that it doesn’t come back, because it gets sold.”

Burden had major works on view in L.A. at MOCA and the Lannan Foundation in 1992 and showed regularly in Los Angeles throughout the 1970s and mid-’80s with various dealers--most notably Rosamund Felsen--but he hasn’t had a gallery show here in nine years. This makes the recent opening at the Gagosian Gallery of “Three Ghost Ships,” a sculptural installation, unusually noteworthy.

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Conceived for the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, S.C., where it was exhibited in 1991, “Three Ghost Ships” comprises three small sailboats electronically rigged to be able to sail without a pilot from America’s Atlantic coast to England. With allusions to America’s historical ties to England, the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria, and the Trojan Horse of ancient Greece, Burden synthesizes his fanciful approach to invention and building with his affinity for machines and shrewd understanding of global politics and history.

Talking with Burden at the gallery as “Three Ghost Ships” is being installed, one gets the sense he’s just passing through town. He leaves in a few days for Vienna to take down “Chris Burden: Beyond the Limits,” a retrospective at the Austrian Museum of Applied Arts that closes Aug. 4. That done, he’ll immediately shift his attention to a survey of recent work opening next spring at the University of Washington’s Henry Art Gallery in Seattle.

Curated by Chris Bruce, the Henry Gallery show will inaugurate the museum’s new building designed by architect Charles Gwathmey and is slated to include “Fist of Light,” which debuted in the 1993 Whitney Biennial, “Medusa’s Head,” seen in L.A. in 1992 in “Helter Skelter,” “L.A.P.D. Uniforms” and “America’s Darker Moments”--both first seen at the Gagosian Gallery in New York in 1994, and “Mini Video Circus,” which debuted in Dijon, France in 1994.

“I’m trying to make the show about new work and not include anything from the 1988 retrospective at the Newport Harbor Art Museum,” says the artist.

Of “Three Ghost Ships,” Burden says “the boats were designed by this crafty old guy from Maine named Phil Bolger, who’s promoted a controversial system called sew and tape where you sew sheets of plywood with wire, then epoxy it. It’s a totally different aesthetic because essentially these are instant boats--you build them quick, sail them and when they start to rot you build another one. They’re disposable, anti-traditional boats in that they’re not fetishized, and because they’re relatively inexpensive, they’ve attracted a different class of people to boating--which is, of course, part of the controversy.

“The boats have been electronically modified, but not to the degree they’d need to go on the open sea without a pilot,” adds Burden, an experienced sailor and boat-owner who did performance pieces in boats in 1972 and 1980. “That level of technology would require lots of time and money, and though I’d be interested in doing it if I had the funds, I consider the pieces complete in their present state because these are art objects. At this point these boats are purely theoretical and that’s fine with me. A symbolic gesture can be significant, because ideas do have power.”

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Among the major Burden works we in Los Angeles may never see are “Fist of Light,” “Pizza City” and “The Flying Steamroller.” Completed this year, “The Flying Steamroller” is exactly that; a 12-ton Navy steamroller circa 1968 that’s been suspended by chains from a central pole, around which it whirls, sort of like an industrial-size maypole.

“ ‘The Steamroller’ is so absurd that it captures the imagination--it seems implausible, but there it is,” says Burden of the work, which returns to L.A. next month to go into storage.

“Fist of Light,” from 1993, is a “room” whose interior is so brightly lit that all color is removed, and black turns to white. “It’s dangerous to actually go into the room,” says Burden. “It wouldn’t blind you but it isn’t good for you, and you instinctually know that--you feel creeped out and look for an exit door. When we were installing the piece, nobody was allowed to spend more than 20 minutes in the room, but the installers still felt sick the next day.”

Even more formidable is “Pizza City,” a miniature city, built on a scale of 1:220--a human figure is about 1/4 inch tall--including every style and period of architecture. It took Burden nine years to complete, and he describes it as having “an organic quality that has a life of its own.”

“I really wanted to show ‘Pizza City’ in L.A but that will never happen because the MAK [an acronym for the Osterreichisches Museum fur Angewandte Kunst, in Vienna] bought it, so it will stay in Austria.”

Begun in the main living space of the Topanga Canyon home Burden shares with his wife, artist Nancy Rubins, the piece ultimately devoured the room. “After working on the piece for seven years, it had gotten so big the house started making strange noises, so Nancy let me move it downstairs into her studio and finish it there. I didn’t think it was site specific, but when I took it downstairs, somehow it just fell apart and I had to re-conceive it, which was really difficult. Then we hired seven people who cranked on it for three months, and off it went. It was a hard piece to let go because I’d become personally attached to it--probably because it represented so much time, and I began it right around the time we finished building our house.”

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Recent critical interpretations of Burden’s work often say his art is becoming increasingly monumental; however, it’s a view he doesn’t share. “A piece like ‘Shoot’ is as monumental as anything I’ve ever made,” says Burden, referring to the legendary 1971 performance piece when he had himself shot in the arm. “If the work is getting more monumental on a physical level, it’s only because I now have the means to do more ambitious projects.”

“I’m always working on several things simultaneously,” continues the artist, who’s taught since 1978 at UCLA, where he’s a tenured professor. “I have half a dozen pieces I’m tinkering with in my head right now--for instance, I’d like to make a body of work that somehow mimics the orbit of the planets, but make it even more bizarre.”

If and when he makes that work, chances are good it will wind up abroad. “Europe gets the work because Europe has always put more money into culture and they’re willing to pay,” he explains. “And because my work is often so expensive to ship, they’re motivated to sell it and reluctant to return it once it gets there. So if it doesn’t sell right away, they just hang on to it for a few years, and eventually it sells.

“Europeans give my work a completely different interpretation than it gets here,” he continues. “Their first take on my work is that it’s American, which probably isn’t the first thing that crosses an American’s mind when they see it.

“When I showed ‘L.A.P.D. Uniforms’ there [a series of 30 identical, oversized police uniforms] this Austrian woman told me it made her think of elegantly dressed gentleman ready to go to the ball. Seeing the piece through her eyes, I could see the handsome lieutenant in his dashing uniform, but that’s not the first thing that kicks off in my head. When I look at it I see Rodney King getting the [expletive] beat out of him.

“Obviously, we bring entirely different histories to whatever we look at, but the difference goes deeper than that,” he adds. “I recently spoke to someone in Vienna who summed it up well; he said that when Europeans make art, it’s always a symbol of something else, whereas with Americans, what you see is what it is. American art is direct and makes no separation between the symbol and the thing itself.”

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Burden concludes by stressing that despite the fact that the bulk of his work is sold in Europe, he has no desire whatsoever to move there. “I can’t imagine anything more terrifying,” he says with a laugh. “They have so much history there, and that must make it hard to be an artist. The other day I hiked around on land 600 feet from my house that had never been hiked on before. When you see those European cathedral steps with three inches of granite worn away, it’s as if history is saying, ‘Guess what kiddo? You’re just another leaf on the tree.’ ”

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Chris Burden, “Three Ghost Ships” and selections of “Small Guns,” Gagosian Gallery, 458 N. Camden Drive, Beverly Hills. Through Aug. 30. (310) 271-9400.

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