Artist Chris Burden's Final Work Takes Flight

Jordan Riefe

The legendary artist died of melanoma on May 10, but his spirit lives on in his final work, 'Ode to Santos Dumont,' on display at LACMA through June 21.

The song, “Joe the Lion,” off David Bowie’s 1977 album, Heroes, features enigmatic lyrics like “nail me to my car and I’ll tell you who you are,” and “Joe the lion, Made of iron.” It seems to make no sense, until you learn that Bowie based the song on L.A. artist Chris Burden, who was indeed nailed, Christ-like, to his car for one of his “danger pieces” entitled, Trans-fixed.

The lyric, “I guess you’ll buy a gun, you’ll buy it second hand,” refers to Shoot, one of Burden’s most famous pieces in which an assistant shot him in the arm with a rifle. Burden crawled through glass for another piece, and spent five days in a 2’x3’x2’ school locker for his graduate thesis. He was, as an assistant said, “a tough dude.” And while Joe the lion may have been made of iron, Burden was not. He died of melanoma on May 10 at his Topanga Canyon home at the age of 69.

His final work, a kinetic sculpture called Ode to Santos Dumont, is on display at LACMA through June 21. A scale re-creation of the airship used by pioneering aviator Santos-Dumont, the new work is fitted with a custom-built quarter-scale 1903-style engine that turns a fiberglass propeller, which in turn drives the 40-foot polyurethane dirigible. The ship will take flight for 15-minute intervals throughout the day inside the museum’s Resnick Pavilion.

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“I think he’s playing with Santos-Dumont as a character who fails, and then tries again,” museum director Michael Govan tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Each time, it evolves. I think, in his own mind, whether he’s conscious or not, he thinks of Santos-Dumont as an artist.”

Alberto Santos-Dumont is known in Europe as the father of aviation, after flying his dirigible in a loop around the Eiffel Tower in October of 1901. The summer before his landmark flight, he crash-landed during a test, and was left suspended in his basket from the Trocadero Hotel. On his final voyage in 1910, he escaped an 80-foot drop with only bruises. It is this spirit of personal endeavor, at the risk of grave bodily harm, that unites Burden with Santos-Dumont.

“There was one time something had failed on the motor,” recalls machinist and inventor John Biggs, who handcrafted the sculpture’s quarter-scale version of a 1903 De Dion engine. As he apologized to Burden, the artist responded with, “It’s a journey. We’re going to get there. It’s the path getting there that’s way more fun than arriving.”

Burden entered the L.A. art scene a decade after the opening of Ferus Gallery by Walter Hopps and Ed Kienholz, who, along with artists like Ed Moses, Robert Irwin, John Altoon and George Herms, formed the basis for a burgeoning movement that defied the Euro-centric tradition of most modern art of the time. After studying under Irwin at U.C. Irvine, Burden embraced performance art, becoming a primary practitioner of the medium throughout the 1970s.  

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As the decade wound down, he replaced himself in his artworks with kinetic sculptures like The Big Wheel, Flying Kayak and, more recently, Metropolis II, which occupies a gallery on the first floor of the museum’s Broad Contemporary building. Children have delighted at the toy-sized city with its steady stream of cars zooming along its highways since its installation in 2012.

“He performed and then he made work that performs,” Govan says, noting that even Urban Light, Burden’s 2008 sculpture consisting of 202 restored antique street lamps in the courtyard along Wilshire Boulevard, turns on and off.

“I have the fondest memory of when he made his speech when we opened Urban Light,” Govan recalls. “He stepped down and saw the lights light up, and said, ‘Damn, what I really wanted to say was I wanted to put the miracle back in the Miracle Mile.”

Ode to Santos Dumont first took flight in December 2014, but by then Burden was too sick to see it first hand. “I really thought Chris is a tough dude,” says Biggs, who hoped the artist might be strong enough to overcome his illness. “Then I got the phone call, and that was that.”

Santos-Dumont has a wide-ranging legacy. Louis Cartier fashioned the first men’s wristwatch at the aviator’s request, to free his hands for flying. An impact crater on the moon bears his name, as does a city in his native Brazil. Burden has a similar legacy of breaking boundaries and bones, albeit in a different field.

“When I saw this work fly, it was hard not to see Chris’ own spirit in it,” Govan says. “This light thing finds its way through the air with just enough power, right on the edge of feeling what it took to make something possible.”