It’s a sad day for anyone interested in the intersection between art and automobiles, because artist Chris Burden died last night of a malignant melanoma. Burden was 69, and in both his automotive work and otherwise, is someone who has inspired me a great deal.
Burden was always a controversial figure, getting his start as a performance artist with a decidedly dramatic and masochistic bent: he had a friend shoot him in the arm, he lived in a locker for several days, he electrocuted himself, and, yes, he even crucified himself to a VW Beetle.
Say what you will about the guy, but no one can say he commit to everything he did.
Burden seemed to have a pretty clear interest and affection for cars. He could have crucified himself to pretty much anything, really — that’s one of the joys of living in a free society, but he chose a VW Beetle because it was a “car of the people.”
That piece was called “Trans Fixed” and here’s what art critic Josh Baer said of it:
In experiencing this type of pain and vulnerability firsthand, Burden is able to make it more familiar and, in turn, he demystifies the horror of such acts by making them knowable, both for himself and for the audience. As a result, the collective fears that society uses to keep people in order are exposed and the idea that the human body is governed by law is rendered impotent.
That was in 1974. After that, he continued to do more work that involved cars, and in less self-destructive ways. My favorite is probably his attempt to make a 100 MPH/100 MPG car by himself, working from mostly intuition and feel. The car was called the B-Car, and Burden said it was “...my fantasy as an artist of what a car should be.”
The result is sort of like a super-superleggera Lotus 7. Sort of. He got reasonably close to his goal — the final car, with a 50cc two-stroke Minarelli motorcycle engine, could do about 50 MPH and got about 150 MPG. Plus, I bet it’s a blast to drive.
Later, Chris Burden used a motorcycle to spin up a massive wheel in an installation called Big Wheel, and made a series of wildly intricate and heavily trafficked miniature cities that were really like the most incredible Hot Wheels tracks you could ever imagine.
Motorized and using hundreds of tiny, custom-built cars, the sculptures Metropolis I and II are playful, fascinating works I think any gearhead would appreciate. Just watch:
I even used Burden’s now-iconic restored streetlamp installation in LA, Urban Light, to hide a small car for a Jalopnik treasure hunt, and a big reason I chose that spot is because of how incredible it feels to be in that space, and I wanted to guide some people in there to have the experience.
I’m genuinely sad to hear he passed, and I hope that fascinating kook rests in peace.