Chris Burden: Ode to Santos Dumont
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
May 18 - June 21, 2015
BY SHANA NYS DAMBROT, MAY 2015
The late Chris Burden was an icon of conceptual art, known across generations for pioneering provocations involving small calibre guns and the hoodwinking of local news media in which he personally enacted fleeting experiences that were more about the exploration of ideas than the formal attributes of any singular object. Although he did say about those decisive actions that in that moment he himself “was a sculpture.” But Burden’s final masterpiece, Ode to Santos Dumont, which was completed shortly before his death, is, like his most affecting and popular work of the past 10-15 years -- an actual, dimensional work of rendered sculpture. On view at LACMA for about a month, it fuses the artisanal engineering of the artist’s monumental static works such as were seen at his 2003 Gagosian Exhibition Bridges & Bullets and the instant public art landmark of Urban Light which is famously installed outside LACMA, with the playfully kinetic performative quality of Metropolis II, which is installed inside.
Along with Metropolis II, Urban Light, and the Bridges series, Ode to Santos Dumont evinces a nostalgic antiqueness in the construction materials, and an obsessive whimsy that had Burden engrossed in the processes of collection and engineering for years at a time. As final masterpieces go, it ties the most salient of Burden’s best recent threads together. Whether the direct references to playtime of the Erector Sets or toy cars or the instigation of play the forest of vintage lampposts induces, this final work speaks to a sensibility that took joy very seriously.
Ode to Santos Dumont is a quarter-scale zeppelin, a working blimp with a gas engine made of industrial plastic and customized Erector Set-style pieces. Too big to be a toy, too small to be anything else, this graceful, eccentric object is referred to by the curatorial team as a protagonist, in that it is said to “perform” thrice a day, and its movements are characterized as intentional actions in a semantic pun that no doubt pleased the artist immensely, but which are in fact absolutely appropriate to the experience. The quarter-scale heightens the effect because it makes it more like the size of a sea creature than a proper airship. Also, the engine makes a gentle steel hum, a kind of robotic purr, that might otherwise threaten to lull you to sleep. The mesmerizing luminosity and oblong light-box diffusion periodically interrupts the view of Heizer’s Levitated Mass through the glass of the back wall, making a poignant statement about lightness, gravity, and materials.
Inspired by Brazilian-born pioneer aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont, the father of French aviation, the mechanism was modeled after the aviator’s 1901 dirigible that flew around the Eiffel Tower. It’s tethered to the center of the gallery space by an industrial cable, so that it traces a rough circle around the space, one that still lets it bump gently up against one wall as it glides along its route. The zeppelin has an aliveness in its way, an echo of consciousness, which is what makes the use of the verb “perform” less odd -- a sort of soulfulness if not quite a soul.
Ode to Santos Dumont is on view during regular museum hours through June 21. Performance times: Mondays: noon, 2pm, 4pm | Tuesdays: on view, although no performances are scheduled | Wednesdays: LACMA closed. | Thursdays: noon, 2pm, 4pm | Fridays: 1pm, 3pm, 5pm, 7pm | Saturdays & Sundays: noon, 2pm, 4pm, 6pm. WM
Shana Nys Dambrot is an art critic, curator, and author based in Downtown LA. She is the Arts Editor for the LA Weekly, and a contributor to Flaunt, Art and Cake, Artillery, and Palm Springs Life.
She studied Art History at Vassar College, writes essays for books and catalogs, curates and juries a few exhibitions each year, is a dedicated Instagram photographer and author of experimental short fiction, and speaks at galleries, schools, and cultural institutions nationally. She is a member of ArtTable and the LA Press Club, and sits on the Boards of Art Share-LA and the Venice Institute of Contemporary Art, the Advisory Council of Building Bridges Art Exchange, and the Brain Trust of Some Serious Business.
Photo of Shana Nys Dambrot by Osceola Refetoff
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