Chris Burden has been shot in the arm and crucified on a Volkswagen Beetle for his art. This early performance work can be viewed at the New Museum, in the a retrospective of Burden’s career, Extreme Measures. The title is apt; the works on view all explore the outer boundaries of perceived power and physical strength.
The show, which takes up the entire building, begins on the 5th floor where a reel runs footage of early “body art” works, including the now famous Shoot (1971) performance. The renown of this work is impressive, considering that it took just a fraction of a second and was only witnessed by twelve people. It went viral, and Burden became a legend in the art world. Context for this and other early work is provided in a 2012 BBC interview with Burden playing in a small listening room. It’s a nice way to start the show, hearing the artist’s voice directly. His upbeat demeanor and thoughtfulness seem at odds with the violence of the performances, which made them more compelling to view.
The remaining four floors, as well as the museum’s exterior, display Burden’s later sculptural and installation pieces. The 4th and 3rd floors displays massive works that explore physical power and engineering principles (below, and first picture in this post):
Installations on the second floor explore authority and political power. All the Submarines of the United States of America (1987) was my favorite work in the show. Suspended from the ceiling, like a school of fish, are 625 model submarines representing all of the submarines commissioned by the U.S. military. The installation itself is mesmerizing, and the subject matter is open to interpretation: is it a vote of confidence in the strength of the military, or an exposure of the shadowy, unseen machinations of the military?
Finally, even the exterior of the museum serves as a display space for Burden’s work. Here is Ghost Ship (2005), which was originally designed to sail a four-hundred-mile unmanned voyage guided by computer. In researching this post I learned that Ghost Ship will be on view for one year as part of the museum’s façade sculpture program. Apparently this program has been in place since the museum first opened in 2007; I think using the exterior as a display space is so smart. It lends itself to unique installations and enables the museum to bring art to the larger public which is so great for the city.
The visitor experience: what worked
Content: Burden’s work and the galleries spaces at the New Museum complement one another. Just installing the exhibition was likely a feat in and of itself.
Website/Audio guide: After my Iran Modern experience, I’ve learned to download the audio guide in advance if available. It was easy to find on the museum’s website, and easy to download.
Signage: This sign by a gallery elevator provided all the information needed to connect with the museum online. I haven’t seen similar signage at other museums, and appreciated the effort to bridge the on and offline worlds.
The visitor experience: room for improvement:
Audio guide availability: When purchasing my ticket, I was not offered an audio guide and there was no signage about its availability. I’ll admit to feeling a little smug that I’d come so well prepared with my pre-downloaded audio guide. Guess what? Not the same guide! Or, the same, but without programmed “stops” that corresponded to the artworks by gallery. Further, the exhibition starts on the 5th floor, hence, so should the narration, but the audio guide I had followed a different order. So I guess what I downloaded was a “for web visitors” version, something I haven’t encountered before. How is a visitor to know?
Audio guide narration: Too many narrators can undermine a guide and that was the case here. The first problem was that every time one of the four narrators spoke, they repeated both their name and their title. This repetition was distracting, and unnecessarily fussy. The second problem was the divergent skill level of the four speakers. Drastically different pacing, and one narrator’s liberal use of “um” while speaking made this audio guide seem amateur.
Gallery Guards: Two guards stood out during my visit for their unfriendly demeanor. One abruptly told a couple to move, gesturing to where they should relocate. No explanation was given. The guard walked away. The nearby elevator was not particularly active and they certainly weren’t impeding egress. On the ground floor, the gallery is adjacent to the lobby, so I can understand why a guard would ask to see my ticket. However, this guard barked the request at me from across the room, talking all the while with another employee about cars, and never actually looked at me or verified that I had a ticket. Memo to museums: every interaction counts in the visitor experience, and those visitor experiences are what builds loyal support for your institution.
Chris Burden: Extreme Measures is on view at the New Museum through January 12, 2014.
Read more about this series on the visitor experience in museums.