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Traffic Jam: Chris Burden's Roadside Attraction at LACMA

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The seven-year-old boy in me couldn't wait to get to the museum to see Chris Burden's Metropolis II. The expectation was high. A million racing cars in a dystopian fantasy of Los Angeles. Unfortunately, I was underwhelmed. I want my money back. The ride gave my inner adult no thrills.

Metropolis II is a spectacular spectacular. Despite its weekend-only exhibition schedule (due to hard wear-and-tear and extra operational labor costs) Metropolis II will nonetheless prove to be boffo at the box office. It's a show the whole family will enjoy. If the attraction travels, I suggest they skip the museum circuit and book it into every FAO Schwarz around the globe. 

All works of art are the culmination of a series of decisions and chances. Metropolis II does not answer the questions that it asks, nor does it seize upon its own opportunities. This project is just a wild man's rant, an angry effort in remembrance of the good old days when you could get anywhere in LA in 20 minutes. Burden confesses, "I don't like driving in Los Angeles." 

Metropolis II is the presentation model for a madman's solution to LA's dreaded traffic problem. Burden believes that in the future magnetics will lurch your driverless car over the breadth of Los Angeles at 240 miles per hour. The 15-mile trip between downtown Los Angeles and Santa Monica will take 30 seconds. Is there an off-ramp for Culver City? Galleries unite!

"The speeding toy cars produce in the viewer the stress of living in a dynamic, active and bustling 21st-century city," Burden writes in his artist statement. He got that right. The stress of the black noise and visual cacophony got me tight as a tick. I couldn't wait to get out of the museum and back into the beauty and solitude of my car, and head straight to the nearest bar.

Chris Burden has produced an impressively engineered attraction after four long years of effort. I wish he had taken five. Attention to detail and aesthetics of the work have been ignored while the artist has obsessed on the obvious and the uninteresting. The only elements that the artist truly crafted are the 1,100 die-cast cars and they are generic. Everything else looks like it came from a toy store or model shop. Why?

Speed is a wonderful thing and worthy of artistic concern. The solution to Burden's traffic project is speed. The toy cars had to be custom manufactured, requiring extra weight to reach speeds of 240 miles per hour. But Burden did not stop at speed and function. Form wormed its way into Metropolis II. The die cast cars were designed in several styles, essentially remakes of late model Hot Wheel cars. These are not the vehicles of a Los Angeles future.

Metropolis II could have been as grandiose and fascinating as his Medusa's Head (1990), a hellish world, slashed, stitched and extremely engaging. But it isn't. Metropolis II has no discernible style, visual motif or opinion. Structures, towers and villages are placed haphazardly. They decorate empty spaces. The candy colored rainbow palette hurts the eye and dulls the imagination. 

The Getty exhibit Pacific Standard Time reminds us once again of Chris Burden's brilliant and groundbreaking early work. He is still as poignant and disturbing as ever. In 2011, at a Southern university, a professor-friend screened a documentary of Burden videos to her MFA grad students. One of these modern thinkers, upset and affronted by the film, complained to the provost. Burden still resonates and pricks. 

There are no obligations in art. On the other hand, if an artist is blessed with a gift of a substantial success, one of patronage, a supportive network or demand, I hope that artist will use that benefit wisely and thoughtfully. To honor a success in the arts, one must assume a responsibility to be the best that you can be. 

I cannot guess the burden of being Chris Burden. As an artist, he will never be able to return to his early work. Once you've shot yourself, that's it. You can't do it twice. He was a burning beacon in his early career, rapid-firing an unassailable intellect for innovation and showmanship. How do you top that? I might guess that the slow drum roll of time is a factor. Time is the enemy to the sweet bird of youth. Maybe Burden is just bored. Or annoyed and contemptful. At the press preview, he looked great, fit and happy.

Whatever the reason, Chris Burden has let me down. Metropolis II is lazy and uneventful. He has shirked a golden opportunity to create something astoundingly awesome. With this work, he has not bitten the hand that feeds him, but he has massaged that mandible into mealy play-dough. 

Metropolis II is located kitty corner from Urban Light, Burden's 2008 installation of 202 antique iron lampposts. Collected from different periods in Los Angeles lamppost history, the beautiful objects are painted gray and neatly spaced. Many regard Urban Light as high art. I have always suspected the artist was cleaning out his front yard. 

Urban Light fails artistically and succeeds commercially in the same way as Metropolis II. Let it be noted that Urban Light has proven to be very popular, an attraction unto itself. Many newlyweds are photographed in the foreground. Tour buses slow. Burden is a museum draw. Urban Light stands alongside the Hollywood Sign, Graumans Chinese and the Grove, a popular shopping mall. LACMA is getting a lot out of Chris Burden, but it might not be getting his greatest efforts.

GORDY GRUNDY is a Los Angeles-based artist and writer. His visual and literary work can be found near www.GordyGrundy.com

This review was first published in Artillery magazine. Click Here to go the art site.

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Traffic Jam: Chris Burden's Roadside Attraction at LACMA
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