Chris Burden’s “Urban Light” – Jesse McLean

Chris Burden is probably best known for his performance work in the seventies where his personal safety was often jeopardized for artistic purpose.  Burden has continued making work but has focused on more assemblage-based sculptural endeavors.  His work began to reference collecting ideologies by the early nineties when he produced “L.A.P.D. Uniforms”, an edition of thirty Los Angeles police uniforms made in response to the L.A. riots.  A frequenter of flea markets, Burden collects of many objects that often become part of new artistic works.  As Susan Freudenheim of the Los Angeles Times wrote, “Trains (toy and full-sized), cars (real and miniature), erector sets and oriental rugs are just a few of the categories that he has amassed in vast quantities, either with a design in mind for specific artworks or with a vague notion of future use.”
Another such collection is Burden’s group of light poles.  For years he collected and restored municipal light poles, almost entirely from the Los Angeles area, originally produced in the 1920’s.  The lamps were completed taken apart, stripped, rewired and restored to working conditions.  The collection began when Burden stumbled upon a light post at a flea market.  The vendor convinced him to buy two, giving him a cheaper price for the pair.  Afterwards, Burden started researching how he could get more and his collection eventually grew to over 150 lights.  Burden has publicly lamented the deterioration of the Los Angeles landscape.  By collecting and restoring the lights he was able to preserve part of the city’s history.  Wanting to keep the collection together and unable to find a gallery space willing to show the entire collection, Burden kept the collection on the perimeter of his studio for years.  In 2006, he stated in Art in America,

“I like the light poles here, so it’s not a terrible loss if they don’t get to go somewhere else.  There’s discussion of them going to Vienna, but I would never loan them for an exhibition.  When they go from here, they go to a home and I get a check.  It’s the only way it’s going to work for me.”

The research to find the poles and the process to restore the lights were laborious tasks.  Combined with Burden’s acknowledgement of the light’s beauty and craftsmanship, it would seem that he had an attachment to his collection.  However, Burden was also quite willing to sell the lights, making his relationship to this collection paradoxical. The inconsistency is somewhat resolved is his hope that the collection could remain whole, wherever it ends up, but regardless of how his light pole collection began, the objects have been transformed into an art installation. This separates Burden’s collections from other types of collecting activities.  The objects that formed his personal collection will be sold, eventually becoming absorbed into a museum or into a private art collection.
In 2008, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art became interested in acquiring the piece and it is now installed on a newly built plaza. Once he knew the location for the permanent installation, Burden increased his collection of lights to 202 restored and fully operational vintage streetlights.  “Urban Light”, the title of the piece, links LACMA to the new Broad Contemporary Art Museum.

Poles installed at Burden's studio

Poles installed at Burden's studio

Installed at LACMA

Installed at LACMA


6 responses to “Chris Burden’s “Urban Light” – Jesse McLean

  1. It’s too bad that Chris Burden collects these objects for their apparent historical value and turns them into hideously ugly art. I think he has taken the history completely out of it. While there is on some level a sense of spectacle to be derived from the illuminated city (historically, architecturally, or urbanely), I much prefer a poetic notion of the liminal space a single lamplight provides. Chris Burden is so not Edward Hopper.

  2. Andrew, if you want to categorize a piece as “hideously ugly”, can you explain why?

    It certainly feels extravagant – and like much of Burden’s more recent art, it consumes vast resources to implement. It’s hard for me to look at that piece and not wonder how much electricity it is consuming.

    The LA County museum presentation of the piece reminds me a bit of the uncanny quality of Magritte paintings like this (though obviously on a massive scale):

    I found a link that shows yet another, smaller, installation of a subset of this collection – here presented indoors, which perhaps abstracts things even further than the decision to paint these a uniform color. Here they seem more like sculptures to me and less like urban fixtures.

  3. I’m not fond of art that speaks to excess without saying something a bit deeper. Art about the culture of excess often simply repeats excess with out being critical. It seems to be a dysfunctional exercise. I don’t see the history reflected in the images presented. The digital image you included above, Marc, has a much quieter appeal. The contrast between image you show and the earlier images illustrates the difference between the collecting and display.

    Edward Hopper used the city as a frequent subject. Hopper’s rich palette colored the cityscape and other spaces as industrial and intimate while capturing history and everyday life.

    I also prefer an industrial aesthetic that is closer to Survival Research Laboratory (& Mark Pauline) “Virtues of Negative Fascination” which has the distinct appeal of Chris Burden’s earlier work and also comments on spectacle, technology, human nature, and cynicism in an interesting way.

    There are many specific associations with streetlights, history and technology. Streets as public spaces were lit by gas and electricity for many years before residential electricity became available. In fact gas and acetylene were considered safer than the wild electrical experiments of Victorian era. The electrical networks and development of relatively cheap alternating current produced huge industries. Examples include indoor lighting, small electrical appliances like fans and refrigeration in the 1920’s. Streetlights also serve as an analog to the contemporary augmented reality of public spaces we so vividly encounter as cellular phone networks, cyberspace nodes, and electronic billboards.

  4. Thank you for elaborating Andrew.

    Maybe some of the tension in this piece by Burden is in the issue we’ve discussed of the difference between collecting and hoarding. In the photo of Burden’s studio, the lights look like more of a greed-driven accumulation. Like someone with 20 cars parked in a massive driveway that everyone can see (granted his studio appears to be some kind of hidden retreat in the mountains).

    The more rigorous and symmetrical presentation at the L.A. County museum looks like it has a different, more psychological impact, because of the extreme formality and the effect of the repetition. Still, I wonder if there is a more modest and discrete way of presenting these works (like in the UK photo) and if they are truly diminished by smaller scale presentations.

    These larger installations, like other Burden pieces involving massive amounts of electricity, like “Fist of Light” (which had to be shut down by the fire department), start to raise moral questions that I’m not sure they intend. I start thinking about if the vast resources they require are justified by the richness of ideas and value of experience they provide. I haven’t seen these projects in person so I’ll reserve final judgment, but I think you can tell where I’m leaning.

    Fist of Light:

    These pieces feel like they are powerful because, well, they consume ungodly amounts of power! Is that enough? I’ve had the same reservations about Survival Research Lab’s projects – provocative as they are – after looking at a list of their resource needs for a single performance:

    Similarly, many of Thomas Hirschhorn’s installations consume so much packing tape and other modified store-bought products that the consumption constantly threatens to become the main subject, ahead of whatever else is intended (example:

    As a person who is about to carry about 150 publications in my luggage to save money from a miniscule project budget as I travel to an exhibition in Texas, I honestly have a bias against the extreme extravagances of the commercial art world. Funding one installation by someone like Burden could have paid for decades of free public programs at a small artist-run space, even before factoring in the electric bill and the long-term maintenance of permanent public art projects. The Burden installation at LACMA just kind of looks like money to me. Not so much art, but expensive cleaned up stuff and power consumption.

    Paul McCarthy, another L.A.-based artist, has a career that has taken a similar path of going from rich, idea-filled performances and projects, to works which seem more about what rich collectors and wealthy institutions will pay for above all else. A lot of his $20 ideas are more meaningful to me than the $2,000,000 works.

    One intriguing detail about Survival Research Laboratories, that I respect, is that I understand those performances to be mostly self-funded by Mark Pauline though his side-business of selling cast off, reusable industrial and electronic materials. Where does he sell these things? On eBay of course!

  5. dilettanteventures

    In the early days, SRL was “funded” by a large network of thievery. Material would show up at Mark’s door so to speak. When I first heard this (via Mark P and Matt Heckert), there was something appealing about it…when I discovered that some of the material was from MUNI buses (the hydraulic components from the rear doors) , I was pretty disappointed.

    I have to say, that as I age, SRL’s work just seems like deviant frat boy theatrics. Despite the work’s alleged politics, I could easily see it as a reality series a la Junkyard Wars.

    I, of course, completely agree with you Marc with regard to funding projects. When I saw the fabrication costs for a recent Jeff Koons piece I was calculating in my head how many years I could fund He Said She Said, how many artists/others I could bring to Chicago…

  6. If we’re going to get extravagant, we’d better throw Olafur Eliasson into the mix. Just the amount of staffpersons he employs is outrageous.

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