Today is the one year anniversary of Chris Burden’s death from melanoma at the age of 69. I’ve been thinking a lot about Burden lately; there have been few artists capable of producing work that retains such a visceral punch no matter how often it’s been seen. Watching decades-old documentation of, or even reading about, Burden’s limit-testing performances still elicits a sense of suspense. Burden desperately wanted to shock his audience into feeling something. He was a polarising figure, but there’s no doubt that he succeeded.
In Burden’s later work, feats of engineering or architecture became a sort of prosthesis for the artist’s body and desire to test the limits of human ambition. His triumphant 2013 retrospective at the New Museum Extreme Measures featured gallery-spanning dioramas and models of skyscrapers, machines of war, and fantastical bridges—all alongside decades worth of documentation of his acts of intervention against his own body. It raised an unexpectedly poignant question about the nature of achievement. Why do we do any of this? Build monuments, win battles, strain ourselves physically, make art? Perhaps to prove that we can.
But “Ghost Ship” (2005) struck a chord with me above all else in the exhibition—if any artwork reflects the human desire to immortalize a sense of exploration or challenge in a surrogate “body”, this is it. The small craft is essentially a drone, outfitted with a GPS system to pilot itself around the sea, that classical realm of adventure in Western popular imagination. It made its maiden 330-mile voyage over the course of 5 days as a public art project off the British coast. In 2013, it was docked on the New Museum as part of the Façade Sculpture Program to accompany Extreme Measures. That year, I asked a friend to give me a tattoo of “Ghost Ship” as part of a performance considering legacy, measures of success, the permanence of documentation, and Burden’s/my own interests in performing angst and masochism. After Burden’s death, a little over a year after Extreme Measures closed, the museum quietly decided to extend the installation’s run as a tribute to the artist.
It hadn’t occurred to me that “Ghost Ship” might be nearing the end of its stay in the Façade Sculpture Program until recently—Ugo Rondinone’s “Hell, Yes!” sign graced the exterior from the new building’s opening in 2007 until it was replaced by Isa Genzken’s “Rose II” from 2010-2013—following those precedents, one might expect “Ghost Ship” to set sail after it’s 3-year tenure ends in 2016. But when I emailed the Museum about its fate, I was told it will be staying put for the immediately foreseeable future. The New Museum hasn’t announced plans to replace the artwork yet, but informed me they don’t intend it to be a permanent installation.
So today, head to the New Museum and look up at “Ghost Ship”. Chris Burden might have disembarked on his final journey, but a piece of his frontier-pushing spirits still floats over the Bowery, for the time being. It’s a comforting icon to us Burden fans still ashore, but part of me wants to see “Ghost Ship” out on the high seas again, seeking out some new challenge to conquer.