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The curbside appeal of Chris Burden's cityscapes, from 'Urban Light' to 'Metropolis II'

January 25, 2011 |  4:21 pm

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Chris Burden's artwork has never been so popular. Since making his name in the 1970s with extreme performance pieces, such as having himself shot in the arm and having his hands nailed to the top of a Volkswagen, he has made a number of works about the urban experience that have a broader populist or popular appeal.

One is "Urban Light," his architectural installation of vintage L.A. lampposts at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, visible from Wilshire Boulevard. In three years it has become the de facto face of the museum and a popular setting for wedding photography, fashion shoots, music videos and movies. (Click here to read my full story about the many roles of "Urban Light," including its star turn in the new Ashton Kutcher/Natalie Portman comedy "No Strings Attached.")

Another example is his new "Metropolis II," a model of an imaginary city that looks like a 5-year-old's train-track and erector-set fantasy on steroids: It's a dense, loopy, freeway-city with 1,100 Hot Wheels-sized cars zipping along 18 lanes -- and some trains and trolleys on their own tracks as well. There are also skyscrapers galore -- made of children's building blocks, Legos, tiles and other simple materials, with mirrors as flashy accents. ("Metropolis I," a smaller predecessor, belongs to the Museum of 21st Century Technology in Kanazawa, Japan.)

The nearly finished artwork, which Burden calls a poetic -- as opposed to realistic - -"portrait of L.A. or any modern city," currently fills nearly all of his studio in Topanga Canyon. But in a matter of months it will be packed up and trucked off to LACMA, where trustee Nicolas Berggruen, who has bought the work, has agreed to loan it for 10 years, says Burden. The artist says it will be installed on the ground floor of BCAM in place of one of the massive Richard Serra sculptures (presumably "Sequence," the one LACMA does not own), along with a stadium for better viewing by all ages.

Still, this not to say that the work is entirely child- (or viewer-) friendly. As a 2009 video of the work-in-progress shows, the mini-traffic is noisy, and the visual commotion is not so easy to take in either.
"It's not about the individual cars -- you can't follow them," says Burden, who is married to the artist Nancy Rubins. "And it does produce anxiety. Nancy says it could cause an epileptic seizure."


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--Jori Finkel

www.twitter.com/jorifinkel

Image: Metropolis II by Chris Burden, at his studio. Photograph by Jori Finkel.

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