Chasing Cars

Trans-fixed, 1974

On the left, ladies and gents (and bots), is a photograph from 1974. You see a man on a Volkswagen Beetle but das not just auto. The man has been nailed to the roof of the car. He is Chris Burden, artist and proper weirdo. That photo of Burden crucified on a Beetle is from a work of his titled “Trans-fixed”.

Burden’s performance art pieces are insane and somewhat horrifying (to me, at least). In 1971, he had his assistant shoot him in the arm. With a real bullet. In 1973, he filmed himself making his way over about 50 feet of pavement sprinkled with shattered glass. Did I mention his hands were tied behind his back? The video was supposed to be inserted in the middle of ad breaks for four weeks. Why? Because Burden really wanted to be on tv. No, seriously, that’s what he said. This is the kind of guy who I imagine would enjoy movies like “Hostel” and “Captivity”. (Though, knowing how artists often act out personae, especially in performance art, Burden may well be a Wong Kar-Wai fan.)

Anyway, in later years, Burden’s art became less … tortured and more mechanical. Stuff like “Ghost Ship” and “When Robots Rule: The Two Minute Airplane Factory” were elaborately constructed installations. They didn’t necessarily work at a mechanical level but that is less nerve-wracking as a problem than his earlier stuff where a technical failure could mean a dead artist. For the past four years, Burden has been working on a new installation, titled “Metropolis II”.  I read about it in an article last year and frankly, it sounded to me like Burden had in his 60s decided that he would give in to the capitalist machine and become a brand ambassador for Hot Wheels. “Metropolis I” (2009-ish, I think) had 80 Hot Wheels cars whooshing around two lanes and a train chugging along a track. Ok, it wasn’t precisely as straightforward as a kiddie train set but then again, if I’d had a team of assistants to build the damn thing with me when I was a kid, who knows how much cooler my train set could have been? Soon after he finished with “Metropolis I”, Burden began work on “Metropolis II”. This time among his assistants was an engineer. With 1,200 cars (custom-designed), 13 toy trains, 18 lanes on which cars can zoom and a city scape made of Lego, wooden blocks, tiles and who knows what else, Burden might have made one of the most amazing portraits of Los Angeles ever.

And you can see and hear a little bit of the installation in this beautiful, beautiful little film made by the directors of Catfish (Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman). I feel myself edging towards becoming a fan of that duo. They have a great sensibility and ability to draw out a narrative with subtlety (though some of the credit for that aspect must go to their editor). And, their cinematography is gorgeous. I doubt I’m going to be able to see “Metropolis II” but I love whatever Joost and Schulman have shown in their short film. It looks amazing and I can easily imagine spending a fair amount of time following the tangles of the motorways, trying to follow a car, admiring how he’s built the skyline. It’s all so much easier on the eye and soul than a man nailed to a car. Yet, with that mad noise of miniature traffic and the sound of the wheels and levers striking one another, there’s still a sense of the old nervous anxiety and manic restlessness; as though those ticks and tocks are a countdown.

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