Sunday, May 10, 2015

RIP: Big Wheel in the art world—motorcycle fan Chris Burden

I just noticed that famed L.A.-based conceptual artist Chris Burden, 69, has died. Back in 2009, I interviewed him on the occasion of the re-installation of a sculpture he created forty years earlier. It was called "The Big Wheel".

2009: About a year ago, I was flipping through the Los Angeles Times and saw an article about the permanent collection of the L.A. Museum of Contemporary Art (aka MOCA.) I noticed the story because it was illustrated with a photo of an extraordinary sculpture, comprised in part of an entire vintage cafe racer.

I thought I'd send word of this discovery to a couple of artist friends, but when I googled the artist's name – Chris Burden – I realized that all my artist friends would already know about him. 

In 1971, Burden, um, 'shot' to fame when he had one of his assistants fire a .22-calibre bullet through his arm, in front of the stunned crowd in a New York art gallery. That was only one of several masochistic pieces of 'performance art' that turned him into a celebrity in the rarefied world of modern art. A decade later he'd abandoned performance for sculpture and – who knew? – it turned out that he was really talented, not just a self-destructive nut job with a knack for self-promotion.  

The Big Wheel, which he created in 1979, used a 1968 Wards Riverside 250 to spin a three-ton cast iron wheel salvaged from some mine (where the wheel had been part of a pump apparatus.) When it was unveiled, the New York Times' art critic wrote, “The contrast is wonderful: this old, simple Goliath of a wheel, man's first 'machine,' powered by a modern David -- small, complex and delicate.” 

Seeing the elegant little bike, I wondered why I'd never heard of a Riverside. It was actually a Benelli imported into the U.S. by the Montgomery Ward catalog company . 'Riverside' was the name Ward used for all its private-label auto accessories; a reference to Riverside International Raceway, which was a big circuit east of L.A. 

For most of the 20th century, two Chicago-based mail-order retailers—Sears and its arch-rival Montgomery Ward—distributed thick catalogs to virtually every home in the U.S. That's why I didn't know about Riverside. You see, I grew up in Canada where we had the Sears catalog (it was known as Simpson-Sears up there) but we didn't get the Wards catalog.

Still, I was familiar with the concept, since the Sears catalog was as ubiquitous in Canadian homes as it was down here. The catalogs' appearance was particularly welcomed by housewives in the small towns and rural farmsteads scattered across the prairies where I lived. The tone was conservative; in the pages devoted to bra-and-panty sets, the models had their navels airbrushed out. For whole families, the catalogs were an opportunity to fantasize about a more glamorous world over the horizon; I guess they filled the role that the Web fills now. While the emphasis was on clothing and housewares, the product mix included almost everything you'd find in a North American home. For a while, Sears even sold houses[ital]. What interested me, of course, were the motorcycles.

In the 1960s, Sears seemed to favor bikes of Teutonic origin—Sachs and Puch—which were rebadged as 'Allstate' for the U.S. and Canada. They sold for $200 to $600. Wards' buyers scoured Italian factories and warehouses and were often able to drive hard bargains with Italian companies that were always on the verge of bankruptcy.  

The little 'Ward's Riverside 250' has already outlived the Riverside track, which closed in 1989. And Montgomery Ward, which went bankrupt itself in 2000. It's a shame it all had to end. I get a subversive frisson from the idea of sexy Italian motorcycles being sold into the bible belt. 

Or showing up in the Museum of Contemporary Art. That was why, when I heard that MOCA was going to include The Big Wheel in an upcoming show at the  Geffen Contemporary – a branch of MOCA in L.A.'s Little Tokyo – I weaseled my way into a press preview so I could meet the artist. I was curious whether the choice of a motorcycle as the means of spinning the wheel had been arbitrary, or whether Burden had a real motorcycle history.

Ironically Burden gave up his teaching job at UCLA when a student brought a realistic-but-fake gun into one of his classes and staged a 'performance piece' of his own, pretending to play Russian Roulette. Burden insisted the student should be punished, and resigned his teaching position when the student was not.

Burden has, since then, spent most of his time working on large works of art at his Topanga Canyon studio. Although he's got a reputation as something of a hermit, he was positively loquacious on the subject of motorcycles. Here's what he had to say about that particular motorcycle, and motorcycles in general...

“The idea of the flywheel came before the idea of the motorcycle. I knew about flywheels in general, and was interested in them as a way of storing energy. I investigated making a concrete one – pouring a concrete circle – but I talked to some engineers about it and they said concrete's good on compression strength but terrible on tensile. And I'd go to the Santa Monica library and research flywheels and I kept seeing this image [of a huge cast iron flywheel.] And I kept looking at these images, and they'd talk about the 'bursting speed,' which is the speed at which the spokes won't hold the rim and... boom.I thought, These things are already made, I don't need to make one I just need to find one. I called scrap dealers and junk yards. I finally called a guy down in Long Beach who repaired giant generators. He had gotten a job dismantling some huge piece of equipment and he'd saved this wheel, because he liked it aesthetically. He said, I've got an eight foot flywheel sitting in my yard. I asked how much he wanted for it. He said, A thousand bucks. I was there in 20 minutes.
So I'm sitting around figuring out how to get it to spin. I'm thinking about electric motors, or should I hook it to the back wheel of my truck... I owned a motorcycle. I thought, Take of the rear fender and there it is.
 I'd had a bunch of motorcycles when I was young. I think I bought this in '76 or '77; it was ten years old then. The guy said he wanted $400 or something. I offered him $300 or $350, and rode it home.
I grew up in Cambridge, Mass. My parents were totally against motorcycles. So I ended up buying this 200cc Triumph Cub in parts. My parents didn't think it would ever run. So I schlepped it into the Triumph dealer in downtown Boston, and over the course of about a year, they got a new cylinder; they rebuilt the whole bike.
That was a long time ago, and it was a rough section of town, you know what I'm saying? And they were real bikers; I was this little prep-school kid. They'd grouch at me. Outside, there were all these black hookers who'd call out, Hey Harvard Boy...
When they finished it, it snowed that day. I rode it home in the snow. I had for a year or a year and half. Eventually I broke the crank. But I went to Italy after that, and bought a little 50cc Bianchi. Then I bought another bike fifty, a Guazzoni, with a rotary valve. [According to my well-worn copy of Tragatsch's The New Illustrated Encyclopedia of Motorcycles, Aldo Guazzoni left Moto Morini in the late '40s and built his own motorcycles, including “some very fast 49cc versions” until the late '70s – MG]
I rode that around Italy one summer with a friend. I brought that home and traded it to a guy that had a Bultaco TSS road racer, which I took out to Pomona College in parts. I put that together and rode that around for a while. Eventually I sold that and bought a BSA Gold Star. 
I sold that, and bought a brand-new Triumph Bonneville in '67 in London. I rode that to Spain, and I came back to the U.S., and it was stolen within a few weeks. Four years later, the Highway Patrol found it, but it had been made into a chopper.
I didn't have a bike for a while. But then eventually I bought this Benelli. I like the lightness of it. About five or ten years ago, I bought a 350 Benelli. I suppose it ran when I got it, but it's just been sitting there. I promised my wife I wouldn't ride it. 
Anyway, I came up with this idea, of rocking the Benelli back against the flywheel, running it up through the gears, then rocking the bike forward, away from the flywheel and just letting it spin. It was bought by a collector named Arnold Ford, who has another one of my sculptures in his house – that one is called 'Yin-Yang' and it is made up of a small International earth-mover and a Lotus Europa car. And the guy's house is small! The Lotus is six feet from his couch, and the crawler is in his foyer. But he had no room for the big wheel so he kept it in storage for a while, then it was acquired by the Lannan Foundation, which in turn passed it on to MOCA.
There's so much energy in the – who knows, half a cup? – of gasoline that you burn in the motorcycle [getting the wheel up to speed.] Those days are coming to a close of course, but there's this kick of energy, then the wheel spins for two or three hours, and you watch it dissipate. I've been interested in mechanical efficiency for a long time. I created the B-car, which used a lot of motorcycle parts, too.
One nice thing is, when you elevate a machine like this to art, it's preserved.”

It's definitely a kinetic sculpture. After we chatted, Burden used the motorcycle to get the big wheel spinning, running it up through the gears, revving the hell out of it, until it reached the redline in fourth. 

The wheel, once up to speed, did spin for several hours. Chris Burden, however, ran out of gas earlier this week.

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