The installation of ‘14 Magnolia Double Lamps’ (2006) at South London Gallery by Chris Burden presents but a small sample of his growing collection of monolithic castiron 1920s lampposts salvaged, stripped and restored over recent years at his studio in Los Angeles. As part of his ongoing Urban Light project the artist has attempted to reinvest the objects with the iconic status of their industrial era’s promise of wealth and civic pride. A couple of photographs by Burden, printed in the gallery’s SLG magazine illustrate the point, depicting the European style lampposts standing as proudly as the palm trees before their discordant contemporary LA backdrop of cars, hoardings and concrete architecture. Taking his urban lights to London, Burden plays on the romance and fear of night in Los Angeles, a city notable in the mind’s eye for its modern qualities rather than its industrial history.
Burden’s name has carried mythic status since his 1970s performances such as Shoot (1971), the significance of which was framed by the backdrop of the Vietnam war and endorsed by Burden’s inclusion in the 1971 exhibition Body Movements at the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art alongside contemporaries like Bruce Nauman. (The controversy surrounding this work was evoked again recently when Burden resigned as a tutor at UCLA to protest the college’s lack of punitive action against a student who pulled a gun apparently in homage to Burden’s past work.) Since this ‘Joe the Lion’ phase—the title of David Bowie’s tribute to Burden on his 1977 album, Heroes —Burden’s actions have become the quieter critical activity of an artist in the guise of inventor. In 1991 Burden produced a drawing of ‘The Flying Steamroller’ with the following instruction, ‘Steam Roller driven in circle until maximum speed / then water is pumped from roller to counter balance / steam roller flies / & continues to spin in the air’. In the drawing the steam roller is depicted with ‘18 ton’ written on its side along with a counter balance marked ‘35-40 ton concrete block’. The machine is depicted set firmly on the ground and the block suspended but through momentum gravity is to be defied and the heavy machinery of industry made to soar. First realised in 1996 ‘The Flying Steam Roller’ was set up again in the Chelsea College of Art and Design parade ground to complement the industrial concerns of ‘14 Magnolia Double Lamps’. Every half hour the steam roller was driven around a gravel mound until the lean of the counter weight raised it from the ground, then, engine switched off, it continued to circle in silence until decreasing momentum brought gravity back into play and it slowly descended to the ground. After barely a moments pause, Burden’s assistant stepped down from the vehicle to the applause of the gathered crowd. Somewhere between science park and fun fair this spectacle was not based on the performer’s physical ability to endure but the urban engineering of an era.
Caroline Woodley is a writer and publisher living in London