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