Building an airship with Chris Burden

Building an airship with Chris Burden
Chris Burden loved to build things; John Biggs worked shoulder to shoulder with him on a final project, "Ode to Santos Dumont." Here, John Biggs with flying installation at LACMA. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

The translucent airship glistens peacefully in the sunlight inside the Resnick Pavilion at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art as a crowd gathers and anticipation grows. "Ode to Santos Dumont," the late artist Chris Burden's final installation, is about to take flight.

A tall, sun-scorched man, wearing a gold hoop earring and a paisley, silk bandanna snug on his head, approaches the airship.


"Excuse me, sir?" interrupts a young boy. "Are you a pirate?"

"A retired pirate," teases John Biggs. "I had kids and retired from the high seas."

Biggs crouches beneath the floating artwork and tinkers with the metal gondola dangling from the belly of the dirigible. Then he flips a switch on the engine. A low-humming "schlap-schap" sound from the small propeller fills the gallery.

"Arrgh!" Biggs snarls, mimicking a hook with one hand and high-fiving onlookers with the other. The ethereal balloon lifts off the ground and begins circling the room.

A machinist, craftsman and artist in his own right, Biggs worked closely with Burden for more than seven years to construct the dirigible's engine, a replica of a 1903 De Dion gasoline motor. The sculpture is an homage to Burden's inspiration, Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont, who flew a dirigible around the Eiffel Tower in 1901. Biggs' careful operation of the piece is his own homage to Burden, who died in May.

During a monthlong run at LACMA that ends Sunday, Biggs has launched the precarious machine for 15-minute flights throughout the day. As he playfully interacts with visitors, savoring the experience while carrying out Burden's last artistic feat — a hybrid of science, art and engineering — Biggs has become part of the installation performance itself.

"Chris always said the journey is sometimes better than the destination, that it's about the process as opposed to rushing to the finish line," Biggs says. "That's what he loved about this piece — what I love. It's, more than anything, about being in the moment."

Such shared moments defined Biggs' and Burden's relationship, as did parallel creative interests. Both were fascinated by aviation as children, both studied art in college and were drawn to intricately engineered, kinetic sculptures. Both were known to take apart mechanical objects as a way to probe the minds of the objects' original creators.

"Back-engineering, you start seeing these people in the motion, in the logic, in how they constructed these things to come up with the answer to a certain problem," Biggs says. "That captivated Chris too."

Biggs grew up in Wilmington, Del., and as a printmaking student at the Rhode Island School of Design, he was a huge fan of Burden, whose whimsical blend of art, science and silliness moved him. "But I never thought I'd meet the guy!" Biggs says.

After roughly two decades of doing special effects and animatronics work for films such as "Doctor Dolittle" and "George of the Jungle," plus a stint in the aerospace industry, Biggs had carved out a freelance niche for himself as a problem solver on arts-meets-engineering projects. He built a hydraulic lift for one client's truck and modified film cameras for directors. About eight years ago, he was summoned to Burden's Topanga Canyon studio to consult on the building of an engine — what would become the heart of "Ode to Santos Dumont," though Biggs didn't know that yet.

Burden's series of model bridges made of Meccano and Erector set parts were so striking, Biggs had not dared to plumb the territory himself. When Burden opened the door, Biggs blurted out: "You ruined bridges for me!"

After six months of work, Biggs finished the engine and Burden finally revealed what the project was all about. Biggs had noticed what looked to be a zeppelin structure on a table at the studio.

"I didn't say anything because I didn't want to jinx it," Biggs says, "because that had always been a dream of mine."


Biggs gave Burden his invoice, thinking this was goodbye. But instead Burden led him outside the studio to continue talking.

"He said: 'No, John, no, no; this is the end of Phase 1. We're moving on to Phase 2,'" Biggs recalls. "We looked out over the canyon, down towards the ocean. Chris was like: 'Do you see it? Do you see it? I want to fly around Topanga!'"

At this point, says Burden's close friend Paul Schimmel, "Chris was so satisfied and taken with John's dedication that they moved together into, 'What is it that needs to be done to make it fly?' There was a great sense of camaraderie between them, both in terms of engineering and craftsmanship. I think John and Chris were able to understand and appreciate the kind of mad genius and inspired ambition of the original inventor, Santos Dumont."

In January, they stood side by side in a Camarillo airplane hangar and watched the blimp take flight for the first time together.

"It was very exciting; it did exactly what we wanted it to do," Biggs says of the airship. But it was also the moment Biggs realized the seriousness of Burden's cancer.

"I asked him afterwards, 'How are you doing?'" Burden's response: not well. "I told him I was sorry," Biggs says. "He was like, 'You know, John, it's gonna be what it is.'"

The memory is so recent, Biggs' voice cracks with emotion. He pinches a napkin over his eyes, holding back tears.

"That was hard," Biggs says before letting go of the napkin and letting the tears roll.

After composing himself, he continues talking about the sculpture.

"You know, there's that moment when it all shuts down and just glides," he says. "It's the perfect moment. I stood there with him watching it that day. Chris turned to me and he was just really, really happy."

Biggs says he feels fortunate not to have worked with, but to have played with his mentor. Burden's influence, he says, "will definitely affect my reality in terms of creating art. It's a mutual feed-fest."

For as long as he can remember, art has been a part of Biggs' life. His father was a lawyer whose heart was in hobby-farming; his mother was a painter who, he says, studied with N.C. Wyeth's daughter, the artist Carolyn Wyeth, a family friend. Biggs thought he'd study illustration in college, but he was drawn to printmaking out of a love for old lithography presses.

A vivid dream in college changed his course and triggered an idea: a chair in a bottle, an object that once had a use but no longer does, except to look beautiful.

Biggs' work evolved into kinetic sculptures that celebrated the intersection of form and function. He began crafting miniature mechanical objects — a tiny, spinning chair or a Burden-inspired "not-so-big wheel" — out of sterling silver, each encased in a clear Pyrex glass bottle.

"I originally wanted the viewer to be drawn in by the mechanical aspect of it — it does something within the confines of the bottle — but I also like the challenge of setting these really tight parameters," he says.

Throughout his career in the movie business, Biggs continued to make art at his home studio in Echo Park, where he lives with his wife of 21 years and two daughters, now 11 and 13.


Art-making provided a refuge from the fast-paced entertainment industry, he says, where "everyone wanted everything yesterday."

His sculptures in bottles continued to evolve. The newest ones use solar energy to propel movement, such as a butterfly's wings flapping over solar-paneled flowers.

Though he's had a few exhibitions over the years, including at Philadelphia's Wexler Gallery in 2001 and at George's gallery in Los Feliz in 1998, Biggs says showing his work was never the end goal. "The journey's better than the destination," he says. "What dreams may come — who knows?"

Sunday will see "Ode's" final flight at LACMA. After which Biggs will go back to freelance prototype work and the sculpture will return to the Burden studio for "tinkering" — Biggs is in the process of finishing a backup motor for it — and there are "some things in the works," Biggs says, surrounding Chris' art. "Loose ends, but I can't say what they are yet. And I want to be there to support [Burden's wife] Nancy."

There are no imminent exhibition plans for the sculpture, as of yet, the Burden studio says.

As "Ode to Santos Dumont" races toward its finish line at LACMA, Biggs is in no rush to get there. If there's one thing he's learned from playing with his mentor, it's how to savor the moment.

Again, Biggs' eyes well up when describing his favorite moment during each airship flight, the point at which the dirigible's engine shuts off and the balloon continues to sail through the air, silently.

"A lot of people miss it, it's the 'too busy for life' thing,'" he says. "The motor goes off and they leave. And I'm, like: 'Wait, wait, this is the best part.' It's so graceful and beautiful.

"I always see Chris just flying off into the distance with it," he continues. "I'm just glad I could give that to him — for his moment."

Twitter: @debvankin


'Ode to Santos Dumont'

Where: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles

When: Through June 21

Info: (323) 857-6010