It is rather ironic that David McCullough's fascinating biography of the Wright Brothers has come out the same time as our midtown LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art) unveiled its new art show from the late Chis Burden. Burden, you may remember, is the groundbreaking artist who created that wonderful exhibit, Urban Light, some 202 vintage L.A. street lamps which stand at the entrance of the museum on the Wilshire Blvd. side and have reinvented the museum's image. (Viewers of PBS see it every night at the opening of the TV show.) The Wright biography details the story of how the two brothers created the first manned airplane flight on the sandy dunes of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. But Chris Burden's show at the Resnick Pavilion, called ODE TO SANTOS DUMONT, pays tribute to a Brazilian-born pioneer aviator, Alberto Santos-Dumont, who was the father of aviation in France. Imagine this: Dumont flew a petrol engine-powered lighter-than-air dirigible around the Eiffel Tower in 1901, two years before the Wright brothers' flight. Yes, this French guy took off from an airfield in Paris in the gondola (cabin) of his cigar-shaped airship and piloted it up and around the Eiffel Tower, then landed safely in a different airfield in Paris. He gained instant international notoriety 'cause it proved the viability of human air travel.
I gather that this feat obsessed the American artist, who then spent almost a decade of research, development and fabrication, working to recreate the machine as a work of art. A fine madness. Starting on this past Tuesday for four weeks, visitors to the museum will be able to see the first museum presentation of Burden's recently-completed monumental performance sculpture, a 40 foot long cigar-shaped balloon made from translucent polyvinyl, with a 45-foot aluminum gondola made from Erector-set parts underneath...all powered by that little engine. I had a chance to interview the museum's director, Michael Govan, and he told me that two months ago he saw a test run with Burden and his machinist-collaborator, John Biggs, in a rented hanger at Camarillo Airport. "Sadly, although he completed his plans for the exhibit," Govan said, "Burden, 69 years old, passed away on May 10th just before the exhibit opened to the public."
I also interviewed John, and he told me that this exhibit is also a fitting tribute to Santos-Dumont's ingenuity and optimism in the face of many naysayers. He sadly smiled as he told me, "The work is also an homage to the persistence of experimentation and failure, which always attends innovation and development of new points of view." John said that Burden, over his 50-year career, was also a relentless innovator of form and ideas. I won't go into a long account here of Chris' artistic projects, but he did pursue projects which have continuously challenged his physical and mental endurance as well as technical complexity. ODE TO SANTOS-DUMONT is a refined mechanism which achieves indoor flight in 15-minute intervals throughout the day. It is tethered from the inboard side with nearly invisible threads to central points in the ceiling and ground. The balloon is filled with helium to neutral buoyancy, and motor is just powerful enough to push the balloon in a 60-foot circle. Jim told me that he had created the tiny 4-cylinder engine over the course of several years. He said, "The fundamental scientific problem of early attempts at navigable flight was that of lifting into the air a pilot and a power source (engine) along with the mechanism of flight control...in the case of Dumont's ship, the rudder, ballast and guide rope." He told me that balloon flights were common at the turn of the century but human-navigable air travel was generally considered not possible. An engine was needed to power a screw - propeller - that would move an airship and pilot's basket built into a fuselage with a rudder, much like a boat moves through the water. Jim told me that the electric engines of the day were too heavy, but an 'explosion engine' powered by petroleum was needed. Burden's airship at the museum is powered by a small replica of of an early engine - it's a quarter-scale version of a 1903 De Dion gasoline motor which John handcrafted to the same specs used by Santos-Dumont.
John launches the airship and gondola.
This lighter-than-air moving sculpture lends a palpable and emotional expression of the density of air, gravity and energy required for locomotion in our everyday earthly environment. Director Govan told the Los Angeles Times: "This work was enormously satisfying to Chris,. There's a lightness to this work that's so moving as an image. The Ode is very much about that aspect of the human spirit - when peopele say this can't be done, you persevere. You tinker, you invent, you figure it out. And that's very much what Chis was about."
I still say it's a miracle that we can actually fly through the air. Will wonders never cease?
Performance times: This show performs at 15-minute intervals several times a day, and is included in the price of general admission. Mondays and Thursday it flies at noon, 2 pm and 4 pm. Fridays 1 pm, 3 pm, 5 pm, 7pm. Saturdays and Sundays: noon, 2 pm, 4 pm, 6 pm. LACMA tells me that the Gagosian Gallery supported the exhibition.
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