It’s not uncommon to see $4 million worth of art in a museum. It’s less common to see $4 million worth of solid gold bricks in a museum. It’s called Tower of Power, and it will require a 24/7 security guard as long as it remains at the New Museum as part of a retrospective on its maker, the artist Chris Burden.
But Tower of Power—which visitors aren't allowed to photograph but you can see here—is far from the coolest piece on view (it’s more a memorial to the 1980s than anything). There are Porsches, meteorites, bridges, and working mortars to be ogled, too.
If you haven’t heard of Burden, that’s okay—he hasn’t been the subject of a show in New York for 25 years, and he’s been a less than common fixture in museums. Yet his work has permeated pop culture in unexpected ways; for instance, David Bowie has dedicated whole songs to him. As a young artist, he operated on the radical end of performance art—he once had an assistant shoot him at point blank range and, for another piece, rolled naked on a bed of broken glass—but found his footing in engineering and architecture (his dad was a Harvard engineering professor).
Porsche With Meteorite, 2013.
Burden’s work is still about performance, though—except now, the performance involves building incredibly advanced models and intricate working machines, rather than a shotgun and a trip to the hospital.
At the New Museum, you’re greeted by a 1964 Ford crane truck, from which hangs a one-ton cast iron weight. Upstairs, a massive steel frame balances a canary yellow Porsche on one end and a 365-pound chunk of meteorite on the other. Next to that piece sits The Big Wheel, a three-ton flywheel that’s powered by contact with the rear wheel of a 1968 Benelli motorcycle. The $4 million stack of gold ensconced in a corner of the gallery, in comparison, seems like chump change.
All the Submarines of the United States of America, 1987.
You might expect to find a political thread in all of this work—in, for example, Burden’s hanging model of the US Navy’s 625 working submarines, or the pair of working 17th century-style Namur Mortars that Burden has installed in one gallery. But it’s not that simple. In The New York Times, Burden describes himself as an “amateur engineer and architect who uses those disciplines as materials for my art,” adding “I don’t really think about it,” when asked if he considers how other people will interpret the work.
So while there’s certainly a cynical element to these pieces—look how much energy and intelligence goes into creating these destructive machines!—but there’s also abject joy. After all, that’s why they’re called marvels of engineering.
Extreme Measures is on view from today until January 12, 2014.
Porsche With Meteorite, 2013. A restored 1974 Porsche counterbalances a massive chunk of meteorite, which weighs upwards of 400 pounds.
Triple 21 Foot Truss Bridge, 2013.
Three Arch Dry Stack Bridge, 1/4 Scale, 2013.
Pair of Namur Mortars, 2013.
These 625 miniature cardboard subs each represent a real vessel in the US Navy—named on the wall behind the handing menagerie.
LAPD Uniforms, 1993.
Beehive Bunker, 2006.
A Tale of Two Cities, 1981. Over 5,000 miniature figurines populate these two perfectly-orchestrated city models, in which robots, helicopters, and human soldiers battle it out. Next to the diorama sit a handful of binoculars, so visitors can peep the action from up-close.
1 Ton Crane Truck, 2009.
Tower of Power, 1985. Image from a previous showing, via Archive of Affinities.
Lead image: The Big Wheel, a three-ton cast-iron flywheel set in motion by a 1968 Benelli motorcycle.