What My Dad Gave Me, 2002. Metal Meccano and Erector toy construction parts, work installed at Rockefeller Center, NY.

Models of Things: A Conversation with Chris Burden

For over a decade, Chris Burden has been making sculptures that study the relationship between reality and imagination, exploring the nexus between the factual and its artistic twin, the fictive. With the unveiling in New York of his colossal skyscraper sculpture, What My Dad Gave Me (2008), Burden presents, for a second time, an artwork that literally stands in front of its original inspiration. His earlier sculpture, Tyne Bridge (2002), developed for the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in the U.K., debuted with the actual Tyne Bridge visible through a gallery window in the background. These evocative sculptures underscore Burden’s study of the inherent relationship between art and reality.

A pioneer of performance art, Burden initially gained notoriety in the early ’70s for his flirtations with self-inflicted danger. Since 1998, beginning with 1/4 Ton Bridge, he has been creating a series of sculptures that visually translate renowned national and international bridges into works of art. These models of reality, which derive from his previous model-type works of the 1980s, such as A Tale of Two Cities, are especially dazzling when set in front of the originals they duplicate. Not unlike the fictions of Jorge Luis Borges, they expand into Baudrillardian terrain by conceptually and physically constructing replicas of copies of reality. Wryly building art from component parts that either are or look like parts found in toy building kits, Burden underscores his philosophical themes, constructing visions of reality by building models of things.

Collette Chattopadhyay: Your Hell Gate, included in the opening exhibition of the L.A. County Museum’s new Broad Contemporary Art Museum, stands somewhere near the beginning of over a decade of work on bridge sculptures. How did you become interested in constructing sculptures of bridges, and what has sustained your interest in this subject for such an extended period of time?

Chris Burden: The first bridge I kept looking at appears in the book Railroads in Mexico as a drawing. Its reverse curve is beautiful, but the bridge was never built. A British engineer conceived it to be made of iron, rather than steel, probably in the mid-1850s, to span a huge gorge in Mexico. Because it’s known as the Mexicano, I call my sculpture Mexican Bridge. I looked at this image for years, thinking I could make a physical model using Erector sets. I’d used Erector sets for other works and thought it would be beautiful to make this design into a gargantuan sculpture. Then, I thought, before I attempt this big project, I’d better do a warm-up. That’s when I decided to make 1/4 Ton Bridge.