Art usually only becomes news if large sums of money are involved. It is a great shame that art isn’t reported on for challenging aesthetics, or revolutionary approaches to form. Nope, only controversies and million dollar gallery deals are the order of the day in the popular press. This is why every report on artist Chris Burden’s Metropolis II will allude to the cost that art investor Nicolas Berggruen was willing to pay for it.
The 20′x30′ sculpture is currently on loan to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for the next ten years. It took Burden and his chief engineer Zak Cook four years to build and comprises 18 roads including a six-lane highway, several train tracks, buildings made from Lego, Erector Sets and Lincoln Logs, and 1100 custom-built toy cars with an average speed of 230mph. It only runs for 90 minutes three days a week and each run requires two staff members watching it constantly for glitches in the system.
If all the figures boggle your mind, you’re not alone. In essence, Metropolis II is big. It took a long time to make, there are a lot of cars and someone paid a lot for it; it’s about size, it’s about scale and it all comes down to figures. So why do we only talk about Metropolis II in this way? There is no doubt that this sculpture required a hell of a lot of dedication and time. Burden must have put his heart into making it. But technical skill seems to have taken precedence over concept. It’s artfully made, but what is the purpose of making it?
The novelty of the sculpture is evident. It cleverly uses childhood toys and challenges the definition of the museum space and subverts ideas of art and sculpture as static. The music in the film — created by Christopher Hirsch — also focuses on the piece as a novelty. But why this form? What does using these kinds of materials mean for a broader concept? Burden told Co.Design;
“It’s modeling something that’s on the twilight of extinction: the era of the ‘free car’. Those days are numbered, but think it’s a good thing. The upside is that cars can be faster and safer, and you don’t have to worry about drunk drivers. Think about it: The cars in Metropolis II are going a scale speed of 230mph. That’d be great to do for real in L.A.”
Did Burden create this kinetic sculpture because he wanted cars in L.A. to go faster? A massive technical achievement seems to have overridden the importance of conceptual innovation. While doubtlessly Metropolis II will be a major drawcard for LACMA, scale and novelty seem to have won out over intellectual debate.