Chris Burden Adds Glitter to the Grit at the New Museum

Chris Burden's "Tower of Power" (1985)
(Courtesy New Museum, New York / Photo: Benoit Pailley)

According to Lisa Phillips, the director of the New Museum, “Chris Burden: Extreme Measures” is the most ambitious show ever staged at the museum. The exhibition, which Phillips organized and which opened today, is full of big, heavy objects that needed to be creatively brought into and distributed around the museum building: “One Ton Truck” on the ground floor (because it wouldn’t fit in the elevator); two cannons on the third floor (placed over a beam so the floor wouldn’t collapse); a Porsche and a meteorite holding each other in balance in mid-air, hovering over the fourth. But only one piece — a smallish sculpture in the niche between the third and fourth floors accessible by a narrow stairwell — requires full-time security.

“Tower of Power” is a stack of 100 one-kilo gold bullion ingots the size and shape of chocolate bars, arranged in a ziggurat formation, that’s worth over $4 million. To view this pile of gleaming, spotlighted gold, which stands roughly 12 inches high atop a four-foot pedestal, visitors must place their bags and belongings in a locker before heading up the stairs to be met by an imposing armed security guard.

The last time the work was to be shown was in 2009, when Gagosian Gallery secured the gold for “One Ton, One Kilo,” an exhibition at its Los Angeles space featuring both the Tower of Power and the One Ton Truck. But the bullion ended up being frozen by federal authorities when the Texas billionaire investor Allen Stanford, from whose company it was purchased, was accused of fraudulent investment activity — and the show never happened. “We expected the guys with guns to steal it,” Burden told ARTINFO, “but it was the men with coat and ties.”

Burden first conceived of the work in the 1970s, when he was with art dealer Ronald Feldman Fine Arts. “I was going to have four bars, bigger bars, and against the wall with an armed guard” Burden said about the gold bullion. “The guard was a trick in mind-thought. People would think, it’s fake gold, and he has the armed guard there to fool us into thinking it’s real gold, but it would be real gold.”

While “Tower of Power” doesn’t seem to bear much resemblance to Burden’s other work — either his early performance pieces, which are barely touched on in the New Museum exhibition, or his later sculptural work with its seeming fixation on guns, machinery, and war — the connection becomes clear when Burden speaks, recalling the neutron bomb technology of the 1970s and ’80s.

“It was a bomb that didn’t explode things, but sent out rays that would kill all living flesh,” he said. “The only thing that will protect you from the neutron bomb is ten feet of gold. The neutron rays can’t get you.”

The gold at the New Museum is, as before, borrowed. But this time, it was made possible by New Museum trustee Lonti Ebers, and should be there for the duration of the show.