From Dallas to Los Angeles, flying with Chris Burden twenty years ago and now — by Rosanna Albertini

He had prepared us knowing that we would have hardly taken him seriously. People rushing toward everything that looks new, like the rats following the magic flute, aren’t likely to easily accept Chris Burden and his art. At the opening of Metropolis II, at LACMA, was a Chris lingering about the entrance seriously tempted to disappear: “Maybe I shouldn’t be here,” he mumbled.

He had never given the public permission to devour his image. Art for him is not about the artist, not a matter of science or opinion, it is a gesture, an act that liberates from exterior superfluous things. And of course it’s human making, playing and replaying everything that has already been done, including death.

Chris Burden’s last piece is lighter than air, an airship prisoner of the room, turning around like an idea filled with helium, driven by a motor, “It keeps going, that’s okay,” Chris would say. Then, “It is good, maybe it is not art.”

Chris Burden, ODE TO SANTOS-DUMONT at Lacma, May 15, 2015  Video by Peter Kirby

TEXT by CHRIS BURDEN     Alberto Santos-Dumont is considered the father of aviation in France. He flew am airship held aloft with a hydrogen-filled balloon to cruise the boulevards of Paris at the turn of the century. In 1901 he won the coveted Deutsch de la Meurthe Prize when he flew his airship around the Eiffel Tower. I have been inspired by the imagination and experimentation of Santos-Dumont. 

Through the inspiration os santos-Dumont airship, I enlisted master machinist John Biggs to handcraft a quarter-scale replica of a 1903 De Dion gasoline motor. After working on and testing the motor for seven years, the motor was completed and functional in 2010. In 2014, after much experimentation with propellers, building the gondola out of aluminum Erector parts, installing the engine and mounting mechanisms, and after working with a balloon manufacturer to produce the cigar-shaped balloon, we employed our knowledge of engineering and physics to realize the sculpture Ode to Santos Dumont.

The airship sculpture, Ode to Santos-Dumont, is a highly balanced and refined mechanism. The airship travels indoors in a sixty-foot circle. It is tethered from the inboard side with very thin, almost invisible threads to central hard points in the ceiling and the ground. The balloon is filled with helium to neutral buoyancy and the motor is just powerful enough to push the balloon in a sixty-foot circle. If the airship were to deviate from its sixty-foot circle, the geometry of the tethers would force the balloon to turn in a smaller, tighter circle, which would cause the motor to work harder. As a result, the airship and its motor always seek the sixty-foot circle, which is the path of least resistance, or the sweet spot. The sculpture Ode to Santos-Dumont was made possible through the ability, incisiveness and good nature, determination, and patience of master craftsman and inventor John Biggs.



He has rebuilt the physical model of the wheel, recreated the original television, and in the B-car the essential automobile; a flying kayak preceded this fluttering airship; broken glasses became huge ships hung from the ceiling, maybe the waves’ memory congealed and preserved. All the submarines of the United States of America pretending to be a flock of birds in flight. Not objects, ideas one by one, at slow pace, took shape in one man’s mind, in a body anxious to know more than the mind, to physically think and touch realities we normally avoid: pain, fear and their sources.

“You can make your tombstone out of cardboard, but then the graveyard won’t look real, will it?”

“What’s real?“

“What does it cost to do that?”

“Art is not easy.”

“I do not eat, you are not eating me, but if you don’t have any relationship with me, I can die.”

Question and answer, all from Chris Burden’s mouth. Hung from his voice, I wrote them down while preparing the longest lecture I ever gave, — two days long — for The Museum of Modern Art in Bolzano, in Italy. Bill Viola was the artist representing the U.S. at the Venice Biennale in 1995. “Who lost?” Pierluigi Siena asked me, the museum’s director. “Chris Burden,” I replied. Both artists being mostly unknown in Italy, Siena asked me to present everything I could about their art and show all the images (slides at the time and videos) in two uninterrupted days. Siena immediately printed the lectures in a small book and personally brought a pile of books to the American Pavilion in Venice.

CHRIS BURDEN, The Big Wheel, 1979

CHRIS BURDEN, The Big Wheel, 1979

CHRIS BURDEN, The Ship- O-Cork, 1983

CHRIS BURDEN, The Ship- O-Cork, 1983

CHRIS BURDEN, All the Submarines of the United States of America, 1987

CHRIS BURDEN, All the Submarines of the United States of America, 1987

 (Still images from Chris Burden, A Video Portrait, by Peter Kirby and Dan Zimbaldi, 1989)

Early nineties, Dallas Airport. Coming from Italy, heading to Los Angeles. The few travelers sitting at the gate looked tired. We did not want to be there. The round head of a man turned, his eyes trapped in the airport’s anonymous waiting boredom. “Are you Chris Burden?” I asked. Surprised, “Yes, but…how do you know?” he answered. “I saw your face in a documentary made by Peter Kirby. Peter is my companion.”

Friendly meetings followed, with Peter and Nancy Rubins, Chris’ wife. And a lot of work, to prepare the Bolzano marathon. Chris offered to go through all his work with me, at my house. Beyond expectations! I accepted. The first day we were supposed to meet and work, I was very nervous. Instead of waiting at my desk, I started gardening. An odd feeling took me at a certain moment, but the bell hadn’t rung. I rushed to the door, Chris was mysteriously walking away. “Chris,” I called, quite upset. He turned back and walked to the door with no words, the work started. I always thought it was magic magnetism … do you know what I mean? Surprise like a lamp in his eyes, kindness, feline freedom, clear honesty. That’s why his art is hung on infinity, I can’t feel him dead.

“I thought: a few minutes of performance, that I will never redo… it becomes a myth.”

CHRIS BURDEN, Ode to Santos Dumont, 2015

CHRIS BURDEN, Ode to Santos Dumont, 2015          Photo: Peter Kirby


 because the artist can only be a humble flower bed, ASKING FOR APPROVAL (AL SERVIZIO DEL CONSENSO) Giuliano Nannipieri from Livorno, Italy.


Here we are again. It would be a revolution in the arts if artists could give up being eccentric, like stars that refuse to rotate around the sun. Money perhaps? It would be simple if artists were spreading around their visions, images not needing the walls of a cave to exist for a long time. Or, some of the time.

Giuliano Nannipieri didn’t see limits to what an artist can be. Still does not. Philosophical weeds fed him deeply, but ideas became disposable for him if they were not bringing sparkles to his heart. Patient enough to graduate in philosophy, he couldn’t accept rules and impositions from the organized art world. He teaches art in a primary school.

He never gave up being a vessel of provocative, meaningful actions. Not far from Hirokazu Kosaka throwing arrows in the space between naked bodies in movement. But the Italian artist was the only one at risk: why not be, uninvited, at the Venice Biennale? In June 6, 2001 he went, exposed his physical metamorphosis, was thrown out. Yet, there was no violence on his side: he was just a tree. The metaphor of the artist’s body showing bandages over the painful transformation into a decorative commodity. Yes, with no price, he will not be purchased. It’s in the premise. Such a derisive, self-destructive commitment would lead, no need to say, to the death of any artist.

Guliano-1    Guliano-2




























 GIULIANO NANNIPIERI – The artist can only be a humble flower bed, al servizio del consenso.

VENICE BIENNALE unofficial performance 6/6, 2001,  6 Polaroids

That’s why I’ll try to uproot his tree and show what Nannipieri did in Venice, as in many other circumstances, by rewriting a page by Emmanuel Levinas. Impossible to translate word by word. It’s a verbal performance,  mine after his.

How can we be if our living time disappears and

we walk through the void?

Let’s imagine things

and people never were, so we could

breath such emptiness in and out

and feel murmurs of silence

subject and names are gone

a field remains of impersonal vibrations

the simple fact of an existing energy field

as impersonal as ‘it rains’ ‘it’s cold’ ‘it’s foggy’

names can’t tell about it, verbs maybe can

no offense to time and space they don’t count

compared with human energy

incurable daughter of fate

no one nothing will change her

what kind of art now?

(free reference to Emmanuel Levinas, Le temps et l’autre, 1979, pp.25-26)

Although I couldn’t tell, I do know some artists feel it in the air, in their blood, in their longs. And it’s against the fossilized values of this marketplace. Now, not in the future. Listen to the silence.




By Rosanna Albertini

American, but a son of Los Angeles which is America and the edge of it, lapped by the Pacific. Our young artist had to go to London and stay there for two years to realize that post-colonialist echoes in Europe have a resonance and a flavor that is missing in his frontier city. But he needed one more step out to personally experience a colonized country. In November 2103 he went to India for a month keeping his behavior perfectly coherent with a “gross” —as he says— American side to whom he is attached more than he thought.

JASON UNDERHILL, Paradise Lodge Catalogue Text, 2013 Silkscreen print on paper 6 x 8 inches Courtesy of the artist

JASON UNDERHILL, Paradise Lodge Catalogue Text, 2013  Silkscreen print on paper, 6″ x 8″
Courtesy of the artist

Only after coming back he started to think about his residency at the Paradise Lodge in Lonavala, among eight artists, as a long game that changed his life. Jason is nor afraid of clichés, for self irony saves him from shots Munchausen style. People from the Valley (continental part of Los Angeles) do act sometimes like barking dogs and laugh about it. It’s a natural thing like yawning when the day is too long, but “it being a natural thing makes it a curious thing a very curious thing to almost anybody’s feeling.” (Gertrude Stein – Narration) No doubt Jason is Jason because his dog recognizes him. Simplicity shouldn’t be underestimated. After all, “it just does take about a hundred years for things to cease to have the same meaning that they had before.” Stein again. And besides, it’s extremely hard to understand the habits of societies in constant transformation all over the world.

Underhill landed into a hilly place non far from Mumbai. Monks excavated the mountains with caves. People of these days filled the walls with simple graffiti. Four castles towered on four of the hilltops. In the small town the foreigners became bizarre celebrities: children wanted to be filmed with them.

Jason Underhill, INT. CHICKEN STALL – NIGHT, 2003

Running: Camera by Chinmoyi Patel, Merike Estna. Driver: Justin Gainan

Train: Camera by Justin Gainan

Kumar Resort: Camera by Chinmoyi Patel

Slam Book : Camera by Justin Gainan

Underhill filmed his own daily life in Lonavala. He looks like an American character incrusted into a place where jogging on the road, or sleeping as a standing horse on the train, do not make any sense. The image of India that he grabs, on the other side, gallops across imitations of western water parks and urban settlements by the same, undeterred pertinacity that fills the image of the young American guest. The two images might merge their foolishness, yet they don’t. None of them is idealized.

Underhill brought to India his human nature and gently revealed his displacement. India crossed over him cutting his breath with pollution and filling his sleeping hours with local music and sounds; he did the equivalent looking deaf. Reality was much more effective than Jason Underhill shows in the films and left marks on his mind. But, as everyone knows, the mind only relates to human nature, they are not the same: the India visitor needs to make sure he is still himself, despite the pleasure of being immersed in a much more communal life than the one he has known in Los Angeles. I’m sure for instance he wants to keep his dog for himself. Mind or nature? Never mind. Of course, there is more.



SHARON ELLIS: paintings from Yucca Valley (California)

All our language is composed of brief little dreams; and the wonderful thing is that we sometimes make of them strangely accurate and marvelously reasonable thoughts.”

FEATHERS IN MY MIND, by Rosanna Albertini

 When the language is visual, and painters make it personal, our visual habits are overturned, and thoughts themselves become imaginary feathers softening our brain from inside. Scared to see that each instant truly vanishes at the speed of light, we take refuge in a mythical country that we call time, or history. Then, strangely, we ask a painting to tell us what’s painted, as if images were more real than words.

A phantom sea,” says Sharon Ellis. Maybe she asked the Joshua trees to tell the story, they are so tormented and bristly that they looked old when were born, and perhaps are, or passed on the feeling of water all over the desert valleys from one forest to another. Oh, the painted water is soft. Her conversation with the moon and the stars is pure luminosity, a bright flower shaped by the petal-clouds. Wearing their perfect blackness, the trees look at the light in silence, stupefied guardians.

SHARON ELLIS, Phantom Sea, 2015, alkyd on paper, 11

SHARON ELLIS, Phantom Sea II, 2015, alkyd on paper, 11″ x 14″
Courtesy of the artist and Christopher Grimes Gallery

SHRON ELLIS, Phantom Sea, 2015   alkyd on paper, 11

SHRON ELLIS, Phantom Sea, 2015 alkyd on paper, 11″ x 14″
Courtesy of the artist and Christopher Grimes Gallery

Years ago I had a long walk on top of the mountains on the shoulders of Pisa, Italy, following narrow paths that a geologist friend of mine was tracking and naming for the first time. That’s why, on the map, one finds il sentiero Ho Chi Minh, and other memorable names from the time of the Vietnam War. Sausages in a bag were part of the scene, to avoid being attacked by wild boars. The geologist was Marco Tongiorgi, the son of a scientist whose name could shine in Sharon Ellis’ sky: Ezio Tongiorgi who dealt with chronology, climate, whale skeletons and human life in a small territory and invented techniques to measure their age. In Pisa I always heard he had discovered Carbon-14 radiation in organic dead materials, still a major dating reference. But I read in Wikipedia that Willard Libby from Chicago bears this honor, which led him to the Nobel Prize. Maybe they both did it separately, not knowing about each other. I’ll stay with the myth of Tongiorgi, because it radiates from my twenty years of life in Pisa.

“All history is made up of nothing but thoughts to which we attribute the essentially mythical value of representing what it was. Each instant falls at each instant into the imaginary.”

SHARON ELLIS, Aquatic Bouquet, 2015, alkyd on paper, 14

SHARON ELLIS, Aquatic Bouquet, 2015, alkyd on paper, 14″ x 11″
Courtesy of the artist and Christopher Grimes Gallery

The most vivid image coming to me after that walk, though, is a group of flat rocks whose surface was slightly wrinkled, as if horizontally shaped by a soft, repetitive bumping: “It’s the work of the waves,” I was told, “What you see is the still form of the waves .” I turned my eyes toward the invisible see shore. Ups and down of the hills, houses and the city itself disappeared under an undulated surface not unlike the one painted by Sharon. Her images are not a figment of imagination, they are her painted story of the beginning of time. Ancient Greek philosophers left us a few, fragmented words to isolate the physical essence of natural things. This artist of today has made each of the essences a visible motion: leaves and flowers of her Aquatic Bouquet are water herself; the shaped movements bloom in a frenzy of bubbles and filaments. The blinding power of the sun, instead, spreads a garden of comets, and white shadows: Sun Garden. And the blades of grass defy the celestial explosion for they come from the ground that makes them strong, flexible, and not obviously friendly.

“In the beginning was the Fable!” Which means that every origin, every dawn of the things is of the same substance as the songs and tales around a cradle…”

SHARON ELLIS, Sun Garden, 2015, alkyd on paper, 14

SHARON ELLIS, Sun Garden, 2015, alkyd on paper, 14″ x 11″
Courtesy of the artist and Christopher Grimes Gallery

PS. The three quotes are from PAUL VALERY, A Fond Note on Myth, 1928.


 Los Angeles — About MAD LOVE by EILEEN COWIN 

Today Reading   by  Rosanna Albertini

The hard task, looking at a narrative art work, is to stop connecting to the déjà vu. And stop thinking that seeing — not the metaphor, the physical eye-sight — is such an isolated, unique gift that drives us through the day. Scientific stories tell us that our small brain — cerebellum— controls our involuntary and visceral reactions to the symphony of stimuli brought by the wind, the passing time, a sound of potatoes crackling in the oven, a truck’s brakes screeching, the cat jumping on the chair, the mailman slamming papers into the box. The small brain transfers his work to the large brain that gives inputs to move uncountable muscles, including the heart. Our whole body sees or not, if we care or not. How the brain regulates the engine is still unclear after centuries of questioning.

The marine layer was soft this morning, dulling the pain in my head. They both dissolved in a few hours. After talking to my plants in the garden, I kept looking at Eileen Cowin’s images. This is the way I saw them, only for today. Tomorrow might be different.

EILEEN COWIN, Untitled from Mad Love, 2014,  5.5

EILEEN COWIN, Untitled from Mad Love, 2014,   5.5″ x 8.2″
Courtesy of the artist

glimpses of gestures and motions, instants, 

and life of stills asked to deal with a lack of light

black density of one kind on paper

and different on screen

a pond of ink filled with stories

written so many times that it’s better

to sink them, the infamous déjà vu, or

the black of the mulch full of promises and of

uncertain future

so that meanings I see in this art work are of today

mad love for life

the room of an undesirable end of the act

undeniable product of a black spot

a black page of time, unwritten story

that hides in flatness or ran away on spindly legs

ugliness is not to be transformed

in our greedy time of saved documents

separate from physicality — the skin is bruised

tactile pleasure is brushed away

and the major focus is in the eye

our cutting machine, close the eyelids

and the black will be there although not perfect

not as dense as the photographic black

not as defined as the vertical lines

forcing the image to restrain

or to grow hard as a metal box

only the eye is full

indifferent to the dinner’s leftovers

and reflecting the tiny image of something

maybe he didn’t care to see

(These are thoughts in vertical discontinuity, not a poem. RA)

EILEEN COWIN, Untitled from, Mad Love, 2014,   5.5

EILEEN COWIN, Untitled from Mad Love, 2014,    5.5″ x 8.2″
Courtesy of the artist

A poet wrote that sensuality is what makes a work of art timeless, that the world of the artist is the domain ruled by senses. Unfortunately, those fingers crossed in the washing hands will remain the same over centuries only if some material support will allow their image to be visible. But, it’s a wonderful idealistic trick to believe that senses have the privilege of timelessness. The poet was captured by his inner beautiful flame. Accidentally, of male nature. He was writing in 1939, war time. He had to magnify the human ability to perpetuate life.

May 11 in Los Angeles. As my work uses words, I see them peeling off. Precarious brain slaves in a uniform. They creep silently toward Eileen Cowin’s images to push back tears and flashes of memories that are the major presence in my day. Time, or destiny? has stolen from life someone I admired immensely. My mind has wrapped him in black.

Good bye Chris Burden.

PS Mad Love is an ongoing project by Eileen Cowin. These are two of the many images from the project.



And the Human Language of Colors

UMAN, Mom of the year for small bird's, 2015, oil on wood, 3

UMAN, Mom of the year for small bird’s, 2015, oil on wood, 3″x 3″
Courtesy of the artist       Photo: Peter Kirby

         Artist statement

I paint. Often I get nostalgic about growing up. These memories express themselves mostly in the colors. They mix with the colors, movements and forms that surround me – seasonal changes in the foliage of upstate New York. Watching the birds migrating makes me wanting to be in that moment with them.


(137ac is a collective studio space. A place to share my work with other artists who share similar values and attitudes about painting. We come in and funnel ideas, frustration, hope and love into our work.)

Uman was born in East Africa and currently lives in New York.

BIANCA SFORNI, Portrait of Uman, 2015

BIANCA SFORNI, Portrait of Uman, 2015

“I started to draw at a young age onto everything I could find. I was full of imagination.

I enjoyed our family vacations all across East Africa, from Turkana to Nairobi to Mandera, a desert where my Grandmother lived.

 I have fond memories of crossing the border with my parents into Tanzania.


Los Angeles, May 1st 2015

Birds drop on your canvas the visual pattern of a melody. Each of them sings a different song, or a speech? Some of them thrive, others seem to shrink as if the end of their song had emptied their body. I don’t know why I see a breathing movement, maybe I’m bedeviled by questions I had as a country child listening to the birds and wishing to understand the language hidden in their throats. Perhaps I was at times mistaking birds for leaves, does it matter?

UMAN, Birds N.1, 2015, oil on Wood, 74

UMAN, Birds N.1, 2015, Oil on primed fabric, 74″ x 62″
Courtesy of the artist

UMAN, Birds N.1, Detail

UMAN, Birds N.1, Detail

These paintings make me think of a scattered mosaic, a collection of particles that you have liberated from being stiff and geometrical. It’s an organic transformation that I see, light and movable, and moving. I can feel the birds flight, their voices. The space is a mid-space between sky and earth, as if your brush could breath the colors and make them weightless.

UMAN, Scattered wild Universe, 2015, Oil on canvas Courtesy of the artist

UMAN, Scattered Wild Universe, 2015, Oil on canvas, 30″ x 24″
Courtesy of the artist

UMAN, Malaria Fever, 2014, Oil on fabric, 40

UMAN, Malaria Fever, 2014, Oil on fabric, 40″ x 30″     Photo: Bianca Sforni
Courtesy of the artist

Really, the visual language you paint isn’t different from the birds’ songs: not the ‘natural’ inhuman scenery, rather the ‘natural’ personal cacophony of colors and forms that makes us part of the universe and the universe part of us. Rectangle triangles or drops of ovals have something of a skin, a softness that makes them vulnerable. I’m trying to read them separately from my memories and thoughts even if it’s clear that I might reach them only if I put my sensitivity at stake, being absolutely sure that it’s different from yours.

A painting? An odd combination of chance and freedom, space and time with the artist as an instrument of circumstances. I give you some John Cage:


He concludes that a note is “between points in a field of frequency or just a drawing in space … absence of theory…” Only NOTATION.

UMAN, Life should be this way, 2013, Goache, oil on board Courtesy of the artist

UMAN, Life should be this way, 2013, Gouache, oil on board, 47″ x 37″
Courtesy of the artist

UMAN, Dark Woods, 2012, Oil on primed paper, 12

UMAN, Dark Woods, 2012, Oil on primed paper, 12″ x 9″ Photo: Bianca Sforni
Courtesy of the artist

Imagination is the only parking place. Your paintings or drawings with one dominant image are harder to read. Ghosts from reality and art history enslave my mind, maybe yours too? I find myself in front of the Dark Woods,   today watching a dragonlike image hissing at a cloud of darkness, tomorrow I might see something else. But looking at the tree embracing the dove with human hands I do know it’s a dream of tenderness, please don’t go, migration is hard. You are a bird from Africa as I am from Italy. Your painting has absorbed my words.

I’m not sure, this piece by William Carlos Williams could speak for both:

“I go back to people. They are the origin of every bit of life that can possibly inhabit any structure, house, poem or novel [or painting] of conceivable human interest. It doesn’t precisely come out of the tops of their heads like flowers but they represent, in themselves, the structure which art . . . Put it this way: If we don’t cling to the warmth which breathes into a house or a poem [or a painting] alike from human need — (The stink, you mean) — the whole matter has nothing to hold it together and becomes structurally weak so that it falls to pieces.”

It can be an elegant dancer resting on a couch, or a brown spot on a red square, the human language of colors.



UMAN, Luly in orange scarf,  2014, Oil on canvas Courtesy of the artist

UMAN, Luly in orange scarf, 2014, Oil on canvas, 8″ x 6″
Courtesy of the artist