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.