Go to any art museum and look at people looking at art. You have the school kids, the distant couples, the amateur experts, the elderly on their audio tours. There we are, tired on our feet, looking for a piece we recognize, bent from the waist so that we can read the little placards on the walls that tell us who and what and when. But I get it. Art can be difficult, uncomfortable, intimidating. As the representational has slowly morphed into the abstract we’ve become conditioned to assume that a work of art is defined by its content; that it must be saying something, that it’s really all about what it’s about. Not what it looks like, or how it makes you feel, or what it is. So you scan the little white cards for clues.
Forty years ago a man named Chris Burden was shot in the arm in Santa Ana, for art. He was dragged by a car down La Cienega, he crawled over broken glass down Main. He was crucified on a Volkswagen Beetle in a Venice garage. He lay beneath a sheet of glass for 45 hours, until an observer brought him water and cast him from his spell. Burden made his own body living sculpture and the suffering and violence against it as performance art.
Go to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and right on Wilshire, the linear downtown of LA, you’ll see Burden’s collection of street lights: 202 in total, all painted a uniform grey, arranged in perfect symmetry and surrounded by our tower-tall trees. Among this forest of light you’ll find people taking modeling, engagement and quinceanera pictures, an informal gathering of yoyo masters (do they have formal gatherings?), slaloming kids and excitable tourists; the people that populate a space and make it art.
Chris Burden died last month. The appreciative obituaries came out, documenting the wilder pieces and anecdotes of a career like no other. It is hard to measure impact with performance art; it is a medium of immediacy and impression, and then of stories retold. Burden had bought his first street lights at the Rose Bowl Flea Market, and over the next few years acquired more from Downtown, Anaheim, Glendale, Hollywood. His local legacy is “Urban Light”, a monument to ephemeral experience, to those happy couples and wannabe models, a public space in a city without many of them. He gave one of the most Instagrammed places in Los Angeles, making us all artists of the moment.
In our age of mechanical reproduction and overproduction it is easy to be desensitized by art, to have heard it all before, seen it all before, felt it all before. Our task then is to recover our senses for art and seek out not what it means, but what it is. Susan Sontag wrote “transparency is the highest, most liberating value in art today. Transparency means experiencing the luminousness of the thing in itself, of things being what they are.”
The man is dead, but the lights stay on.