He wasn't the first one doing it -- he was just the most notoriously deviant. His constant flirtation with danger underlined however many themes you wanted to read into such action: the precarious nature of life, the horrors of war (both Vietnam and the Cold), the very problem of defining art. Most laypeople refused to connect Burden's firing shots at passing planes or sucking water into his lungs with art proper, but that didn't stop them from watching him.
Burden's liberal West Coast roots gave him the fuel and the permission to experiment with such excess, but just as everyone started to wonder how many Wile E. Coyote lives he had left, he started to veer toward sculpture. And what a windfall for all of us: He has since produced some of the most fascinating pieces of the last two decades, in the process reinventing himself as a type of machine engineer. His latest work, When Robots Rule: The Two Minute Aeroplane Factory, whizzes and bangs away in London's venerable Tate Gallery. It produces countless complex balsa-wood model airplanes in a sort of automated assembly line, each tiny winger flying out of the machine and into the thin air of the art space. What takes a human at least four or five hours to construct takes his big machine two minutes, and you get to watch this one-upmanship as it happens, your face rubbed in it as long as you care to watch. More than anything, it communicates Burden's fascination with man's need to invent, to build, to rebuild -- a compulsion that's as unavoidable as our baser biological needs. Burden himself once built a television from scratch just to scratch that itch.
The Dallas Museum of Art is fortunate to own one of Burden's crowning sculptural achievements, "All the Submarines of the United States of America" (1987), a room-sized installation of a whole fleet of model nuclear submarines. These 625 subs, each one hung on a long filament and representing a real Navy vessel, are as tiny and delicate as dry leaves in air. You can walk around the mass of them as they float in a sea of air. But what they represent, a point driven home by a back wall listing the name and military serial number of each, is quite insidious. These are far more than toys or dangling sculptures. They reflect not only this nation's obsession with national security (and its efficiency in producing it), but the weapons of mass destruction, poised to wage war.
The subs' home is in one of the quadrant galleries, and occasionally it's removed to make room for a traveling show. But it's up again right now, and the DMA's chief curator of contemporary art, Charles Wylie, is going to give a talk about the piece on Wednesday afternoon. During the discussion, he'll walk you through the installation, through Burden's motivation and career, and thoughtfully dissect this type of work's place in contemporary art. It's a brief, casual opportunity to delve more deeply into the museum-going experience, as well as to see a pivotal work by a truly astonishing artist. Not bad for a lunch hour.