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May 1 - July 13, 2003 at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, Hollywood

by Elenore Welles

“Small Skyscraper: Quasi Legal
Los Angeles County,” 1991,
mixed media drawing.

“Site-Possibilities (Miniscraper
on the Side of Cliff)," 2001,
ink on photograph.

“Site-Possibilities (Miniscraper
Castle-Type Moat)," 2001,
ink on photograph.

“Small Skyscraper," 2001
architectural drawing.
Mention the name Chris Burden and you are likely to be asked, “Is he still shooting himself? In the 1970s, when artists such as Burden, Vito Acconci and Bruce Nauman broke free from societal restrictions, they attempted to shock the art world out of it’s commercial intransigence. In the tradition evoked by earlier Dadaists, they made the artist/spectator relationship crucial. But in pushing the boundaries of concept over form to the extreme, they outdid their predecessors. Burden, for instance, executed a series of self-punishing physical ordeals that included having himself shot in the arm.

After 30 odd years, shock waves from those stunts continue to reverberate. But Burden didn’t remain ideologically frozen. In the ensuing years he has strayed far afield from acts of self-mutilation. That is not to say that he ceased to be a provocative artist. Although his approach has been subtler, his creativity continues to evolve out of social and political contexts.

Identification with the past notwithstanding, he manages to maintain a sense of relevance. For instance, using war toys to create a city/state at war, a recent installation evoked the connections between money, power, technology and the military.

At times, he leaps from the topical to the futuristic, a tendency that goes as far back as 1975, when he engineered a utopian car. In Small Skyscraper, his latest work, Burden reconnects with the utopian tradition of transforming people’s needs through the design of physical space. The Skyscraper was a concept that grew out of his frustration with L.A.’s building codes, encountered in the course of building a studio on his property. Described as a sculpture disguised as a house disguised as a skyscraper, the dimensions exploit a loophole that allows small outbuildings, like sheds and greenhouses, to be built without a permit if they stay within 400 square feet and under 35 feet high.

Skyscraper, consisting of four rooms stacked one on top of the other, reflects Burden’s edgy humor. Each room is a ten-foot-square space with an eight foot floor-to-floor height. The total structure adheres to the requirements of the building code. Not to neglect a bit of controversy, however, Burden pushes legal parameters with the addition of a roof parapet, and the structure is built to be able to function as a domestic dwelling.

Built in conjunction with architects Linda Taalman and Alan Koch of TK Architecture, the featherweight structure is constructed from a kit of aluminum parts. It was designed to be erected by untrained builders with a minimum of equipment and at a far lower cost than traditional domestic dwellings.

To emphasize the minimal efficiency, the structure will be displayed horizontally, spanning the length of the galleries. At the close of the exhibition, it will be disassembled and moved to an outdoor site in Topanga Canyon where it will be erected vertically.

Still adhering to the principles of artist/audience participation, Burden elicits project related cross-disciplinary collaborations and discussions. In conjunction with the exhibit, a fabrication workshop entitled “How to Build a Skyscraper in 10 Days” will be led by Koch and Taalman. The exhibit also corresponds to The MAK Center for Art and Architecture’s presentation of Trespassing: Houses X Artists’ project, of which Small Skyscraper is also a part.

In the utopian tradition, art, life and architecture are relevant to urban issues. Form follows function not only in the physical sense, but in the emotional sense as well. By narrowing the gulf between fine art and practical use, as well as between art and industry, Burden’s vision for a humanistic restructuring of the future exposes the disjunction between the values of financial and property groups and the needs of society.