On January 5, 1973, at about 8 AM near LAX, artist Chris Burden fired several shots with a pistol at a Boeing 747. No one was hurt. There was only one witness to the moment, photographer Terry McDonnell, who captured the performance on black and white film. Burden aptly titled this piece “747”.
In the “747” pictures, Burden is being photographed from behind, his shooting arm at a 45 degree angle in the direction of the sky. The plane’s shape clear and recognizable, and it seems like the aircraft is safely out of the gun’s range, but one can’t be entirely too sure. Here, Burden is a single, faceless gunslinger on the westernmost edge of America while the modern world soars above him. He attempts to shoot it down, and fails.
It’s an exciting picture: romantic in its loneliness and singular expression of force, dangerous, as a man with a gun will always be, and kind of funny, the way failures are. It’s also surprisingly nostalgic, especially for a young artist who at that point in his career had been known for self-destructive, violent performance pieces, including him getting shot, hi-jacking a TV station, and crawling naked over broken glass.
“747” was perhaps the first indication of what time would do to Chris Burden. As his physical body would finally withstand enough beatings in the name of art, his tenderness and sense of humor would surface more often in his work. He would get older and eventually die, very prematurely, from cancer at the age of 69, in his home at Topanga Canyon this past May. Only a month before his death, he had started making plans to exhibit his last work, the undeniably nostalgic airship that is “Ode to Santos Dumont”, currently at the LACMA. It premiered about a week after his death.
“Ode to Santos Dumont” is a quarter-sized replica of the dirigibles that Santos Dumont flew around Paris around the turn of the 19th century. Dumont, considered to be the father of aviation in France, flew a similar model around the Eiffel Tower in 1901. Burden’s “Ode”, a work ten years in the making alongside machinist and inventor John Biggs, has more modest ambitions: it flies three to four times a day, for fifteen minute periods at a time, within a contained, sixty-foot circle trajectory inside LACMA’s Resnick pavilion.
When I see it, on a sunny Friday afternoon, there are 40 to 50 people present, waiting for its lift-off. A little over a third of them are young children and families. This is not surprising, since “Ode” is precisely the kind of work that is alluring to young parents trying to get their kids to engage with art. It is both awe-inspiring in its scope and craftsmanship, while being accessible and historical, ready to become the centerpiece of an elementary school’s yearly field trip to the museum; it’s fun and inspiring to watch big things get off the ground and fly around the room. It’s even more inspiring to see little children excited by something other than touch screens.
Still, contemplating “Ode”s obvious, gentle trajectory one can’t help but to feel Burden’s restless ghost in the room, looking at the work with his gun in hand, up to no good. “Ode” ultimately works, but does it do justice to a life marked by mischief, mayhem and a general disregard for the acceptable? Still thinking of the children, perhaps it would be more fitting for someone (or something) to eventually shoot it down.
Tadeu Bijos is a Los Angeles based writer and film-maker. Follow him on twitter @jtbijos.