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Limits Of Control: Talking To Doug Haywood About Chris Burden
Jude Cowan Montague , October 14th, 2018 10:42

With a new show by Chris Burden (1946-2015) at the Gagosian, Jude Cowan Montague chats to friend and fellow artist Doug Haywood at the private view, taking in playfulness and theatricality, pain and performance, and – naturally – Roadrunner cartoons

Chris Burden, Porsche with Meteorite (2013), restored 1974 Porsche, 390 pound meteorite, steel structure © Chris Burden, licensed by the Chris Burden Estate / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy Gagosian

During the course of the opening, an immobile car, hazard lights flashing, is stuck fast at an angle in the middle of the road outside the gallery, surrounded by hazard cones. This could quite plausibly have been a live performance piece for the sake of the show but it’s a genuine broken down car with a ruptured axle. The appropriate irony is well noted and welcomed by the attendees. 

This is a Chris Burden exhibition so we expect our sculpture to perform for us. Today, there will be two sculptures of vehicles, displayed in surreal over-perfection. The spectacle of the motor-age is encoded in these monumental pieces. Real exercises in power and balance before our eyes.

Chris Burden was a critic not so much of the American dream but American reality. From his ‘body at risk’ pieces in the first stage of his career to the kinetic street architecture of his later installations, his work should be – literally – a thrill.

I meet Doug Haywood, the London-based sound and installation artist, for a Saturday evening private view at the Gagosian Gallery, London. Haywood is an artist working in sound, sculpture, and film. He creates bespoke soundtracks and environments for installation and gallery events. As often is the case with Doug, he's already there, having spent a few moments almost alone with the works before the room really begins to wash with people and, in this case, lager and ginger beer.

Today, we will get up close to work from Burden's later period, see his large scale mechanical installations. Our imaginations confront the implications of what could happen if these mechanistic scenarios go wrong – or even right.

Doug Haywood: This is a showcase for excitement. A playground with a knowing nod to quality. It's a confident move by Gagosian to show just two static works by Chris Burden, Porsche with Meteorite (2013) and 1 Ton Crane Truck (2009). It simply allows the works to speak for themselves. 

Jude Cowan Montague: The Porsche suspended from the crane balanced with the meteorite is my stand out piece. I'm getting all kinds of resonances to do with the laws of the universe, the path of orbit, the physics of space. The car is the main tool of the twentieth century that allows the individual to transcend their 'god-given' spot on this earth. We don't have to wait for a train. We jump in it and go faster. This is about the combustion engine, among other things, and its impact on our sense of the expanded world, our galaxy. 

DH: As in [Burden’s 1996 performance piece] The Flying Steamroller. There the engine speeds up to the extent that the ultra-heavy vehicle, that should flatten what's beneath it, pressing into the earth, impossibly lifts up from the ground and flies. It challenges gravity and wins. 

JCM: The duelling of forces. Engines and weights beating the domination of the usual energies that rule our earthbound lives. People and machines, rocks and fire, working together to strange ends. I wish we could see The Flying Steamroller live but we have to make do with it on YouTube. Yet I admit these sculptures have the feel of kinetic work while being static. 

DH: The Porsche and the moonrock are precariously balanced – apparently. Before you arrived, when the gallery was almost empty, I felt that sense of threat and naughtiness walking under the imposing arm of the crane device. Both pieces are rendered beyond high gloss perfection in their finish. This is cartoonish safety. 

JCM: It reminds me of the ACME corporation running gag when Wile E. Coyote gets deliveries in the desert. Orders of impossible things that enable him to do his weird stunts. And then he does crazy stunts that are really violent. I can almost hear the soundtrack… 

DH: This sense of finish makes it theatrical. And these pieces are not made for consumption. They aren't an object to own but an experience to contemplate. Like Beam Drop (1984/2008) which encompassed danger, action, and performance, and brutally exposed its act of manufacture as sculpture. 

For Beam Drop (1984/2008), one hundred heavy industrial steel I-beams were dropped from a high crane into wet cement, each one landing randomly with a loud crash and sparks. The performance built up over several hours, going into the evening and the dark. The result is a static sculptural cluster of twisted and bent steel as well as a fascinating video of the ear-splitting, heart-racing process. 

JCM: At The Hayward Gallery’s Space Shifters group show, we saw how the exhibition took aspects of fairground entertainment into the gallery. The novelty technology employed there echoed the period of early cinema. It was like being in a modern hall of mirrors watching a factory gate film, with the group of student visitors who were clearly revelling in performing themselves in the mirrored surfaces of the artwork. The performers who were walking around in mirrors to a designated line weren't the artists; they were employees, and put me in mind of performers in the fairground. A pirate who jumps out from behind a screen and sprays you with a watergun. It's fair enough it's a group exhibition and the attendants were managing it in a very public space.

That's not like Chris Burden at the Gagosian. The attendants here are hands off. And he does not employ other performers to carry out his work. He's totally involved in his artwork. His presence is in both these works. They're his obsessions and I feel that he's built it himself, with the aid of machines and huge teams of course. 

DH: Which brings us on to pain. In Shoot(1971) it was essential that he himself was shot, that he did not shoot someone else. That would have legitimised someone being shot for art, and ethically it was critical to avoid that. But there's so much else going. Critics talk about his fetish of pain and the background of the war in Vietnam at the time, an antidote to the images of injury and death on the television. He was trying to make the pain feel real by using himself as the artist. The audience has to experience that first hand, to witness someone actually taking a bullet before them. 

In Shoot (1971), Chris Burden's arm was pierced by a bullet from a 22 long rifle. It was considered one of the most spectacular art performances of the 1970s. Video and photography document the performance, only one of the 'startling actions' of this early  period of Burden's work.

JCM: I find the over-finish disturbing. I don't think it's Chris Burden's intention but a gallery intervention. 

DH: It was his instruction. It helps the playfulness and theatricality of the pieces. The safeness of this theatre of pain. It underpins the ridiculousness and dark humour of it all. 

JCM: The sheer amount of work that he did is unbelievable. The catalogue of his work is huge and looking at the great thick book shows a lifetime of mad pieces – not bad for someone they said would never live past thirty.

I love the simple playful diagrams of how his machine art should work. They're a bit like cartoon drawings themselves. Friendly lettering. They aren't blueprints. They are not serious technical drawings. They make me think, I could design something crazy-big like this if I could draw it like this. 

DH: It's testing our limits. He thinks like a child.

JCM: Yes! I remember stapling my finger once, just to see what would happen. Never again.   

Chris Burden, Measured, is at the Gagosian Gallery, Britannia Street, London, until 26 January 2019