Chris Burden interview, Topanga Hills, Los Angeles,
th December 2012

Text: Rokko / Photos: Kurt Prinz, Rokko


Chris Burden (1946-2015) was one of the most interesting and radical performance and conceptual artists to emerge from the 20th century. In his piece “Shoot” (1971), he got a friend to shoot him with a gun, in “747” (1973) he himself fired at a Boeing 747 taking off from the Los Angeles International Airport. He tried to breathe water, was crucified on a Volkswagen Beetle and hijacked the television. In gigantic installations, Chris Burden found his own very direct way of criticizing architecture that had the deliberate potential to destroy the big institutions they were shown in.

Visiting him in his place in the Topanga Hills in Los Angeles, on the other hand, was very chilled. His studio lay in the middle of the hills surrounded by wildlife. To get there, you had to drive through an enormous gate that made you feel like you were entering a national park.

A national park of some other kind.

© Kurt Prinz

Rokko: Some of your work is gigantic and makes quite an impact. Has that ever caused problems with your neighbours?

Chris Burden: You know, not my immediate neighbours, but we had a problem with a neighbour…

We own a lot of property here, up to that tree and over this mountain and down into the valley. And it turns out that a man on the other side – a very crazy man – built many houses that were illegal on the county road and two on our property. And he was running a film studio for porn movies. He’s very close to the valley, and San Fernando Valley is the porn capital of the world. So his talents were just a few minutes away from us – and this became a problem, to say the least. [laughs]

He’s now wanted for arrest, sheriffs are looking for him, they’ve come with guns to try to find him. The ATF [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives] wants to talk to him, you know. He’s gone, the buildings he owned are in foreclosure, but it’s still a problem. Because of that, I became very sensitive in that way. [laughs]

How long have you been living here?

I bought the first land in ’81, ten acres down there, and I bought it from the granddaughter of the original owner – so I’m the second owner, this is amazing! He bought it from the State of California in 1909 and I bought it from his granddaughter in 1981. And then, in 1983, I started camping out here. My wife and I lived here in a tent for four and a half years, down below, while we built our house, which is right there. The reason we lived in a tent is because the first person living up here was a neighbour down the street. He was halfway down the road and he put a little trailer on there – and immediately, the neighbours on the top of the hill called the inspector because of that little trailer. So I thought if I have a tent, it’s not a trailer, you know what I mean?! [laughs]

But because it’s so rural here, when we first started building this road was all dirt – from the top of the hill where the water tank is. No bank would give me a construction loan. No bank. Because it’s a dirt road and blah blah blah… They won’t give you any kind of loan. So we built the house cash – which is kind of amazing, really. [laughs]

But it took a long time, maybe three or four years. We lived in it without windows, with plastic on the windows. We didn’t have a real kitchen, but so what?!

Just improvised a bit.

Yeah, and then, when we got a little more money, we put the windows in. And then we bought some more land.

We are at the end of the road, so this is very good for us because we don’t disturb our neighbours so much. If we were at the beginning of the road, they would see all these piles of stuff.

Did you choose this area deliberately?

Yes, I had lived up here with a girlfriend, a painter lady, for three or four years, and then, when we split up, I really liked this area because it’s so close to the city, but it feels like the country – which it is not. You know, this is LA: what you see is not necessarily what it is. It’s the land of make-believe.

It has to do with the geography ‘cause these mountains are very, very hard to build in. For example, my studio, which is legal, took four years to get the permits – but two weeks to put the building up. And every year it gets more difficult because they make more and more laws. We don’t have city water here, we have to have our own well. We had to bring in electricity from the top of the road – we had to all pay for it. That road, the asphalt, we had to pay for – it’s not a city road. It has to be a certain width for the fire department, there’s all kinds of rules.

But we do have a lot of wildlife: we got deer, we have tons of coyotes, we have mountain lions, we have bobcats…

And right over this mountain, that’s the San Fernando Valley. There’s four million people living there, and that’s 17 minutes away. [laughs] This is weird!

You started out here with your wife and now you got employees – how many?

Oh, it varies. When we are doing a big project, like the “Rockefeller Center” piece – we had a lot of employees. Maybe… 20. When we did the “Metropolis II” sculpture – the one that’s in the LACAM – with 1,100 cars and 18 lanes and a city with maybe… 100 buildings – we handmade it all here. Four years to make and five months to take apart and six months to put back together – so then we had a lot of employees. And it was really too many, there’s only one bathroom, there’s only one little sink for lunch, one little microwave, so when you have 25 people trying to… it became too much. But that was a huge ordeal, that was a giant sculpture that took a lot of money, and time.

Chris Burden’s installation “Metropolis II” in the LACMA © Rokko

Do you have any exhibitions planned in Austria?

CB: Mmm, I don’t think so, right? Do I, Katy?

Katy Lucas [who was Chris Burden’s studio manager for 25 years]: Mmm, no. I know Ursula Krinzinger…

CB: … talks about it. She wants to do a show, you know, but she’s a kind of funny lady, too.

KL: [laughs shyly]

CB: No, I like Ursula, but, you know, she says things, and then – you have to pay for production, and production money has to come – and [laughs] if production money doesn’t come, we can’t make the exhibition!

That makes sense. How do you remember your exhibition in the MAK in Vienna?

CB: I thought it was pretty successful. Peter [Noever] produced “The Flying Steamroller” and, of course, that was great, to have that there, it was fantastic!

[What is “The Flying Steamroller”?
says: “
The Flying Steamroller, 1996, is a huge sculpture which consists of a twelve-ton steamroller that is attached to a pivoting arm with a counterbalance weight. The steamroller is driven in an enormous circle until its maximum speed is reached. At the same time, a hydraulic piston is activated and pushes up the beam from which the steamroller is suspended, causing the steamroller to lift off the ground. Because of the combined weight of the steamroller and the counterbalance, which is approximately 48 tons, the steamroller, once lifted off the ground, continues to spin, or ‘fly’ for several minutes. As the steamroller nears the end of its circular motion, or when the spinning momentum is exhausted, the hydraulic piston is slowly retracted and the steamroller gently lands.”]

It was hard, it was a lot of work.

KL: Tell him about the transport!

CB: Yeah, that was funny. The steamroller was shipped with its wheels full of water. And they didn’t discover it ’til they were trying to get it up the steps in the MAK.

KL: The water was frozen, so they had to blowtorch the wheel to melt the ice, to get the water out. But it had been shipped with triple the weight from all the water! [laughs]

CB: Oh well…

You were also part of Paul Schimmel’s infamous “Helter Skelter” exhibition at the LACMA.

To be honest with you, the title is taken from Charlie Manson…

who used to live in the Topanga Canyons as well.

Yeah, and my friend Paul Schimmel wanted to go to the prison where Charlie Manson is and give an art lecture about “Helter Skelter”. And I said: “Paul, you have two children, don’t you? If you go to that prison and give a lecture about your art show, please take my slides out of the lecture. I don’t want to put a red flag in front of Charlie Manson.”

I just thought he wasn’t really thinking. You don’t wanna go and tease Charlie Manson – that’s a stupid thing to do – I think! [laughs] That’s just asking for trouble, ‘cause the man is crazy. It’s just not good to poke crazy people – they bite.

Even if they are in prison.

No, really, I’m serious. He has friends that are not in prison. [laughs] You don’t want them to know who you are. But in general, it was a very succesfull show and it was very controversial when it first appeared. It got terrible press, but it also was the talk of the town, and it was amazing.

© Kurt Prinz

For a long time, you were teaching at the UCLA. How did you like teaching students?

Ah well, to be honest, when I first started teaching, it was a way to survive. I enjoyed it… to a certain degree. But at the end, I didn’t like teaching. I’d been there too long, I taught 26 years. And it felt like… a real job. [laughs] Not in the good sense. It was a job that was taking me away from what I wanted to do. So at the beginning it was good – but then it became a bad habit.

Was there one main thing you wanted to teach your students?

Mmmhhh, I think just to be conscious and think. Think of everything. I think art is a lot about thinking about the details and then there is the part about exectuing those thoughts. It’s fine to have ideas, but then to make these ideas into a reality – whatever it is, whether it is an installation, a performance... – that’s more difficult sometimes. It’s easier to dream but to make a dream come true takes a lot of work. It’s an effort in thinking and planning and perseverance, too.

Is it hard not to repeat yourself, when you permanently have to outdo yourself to keep it interesting?

Well, there’s all different… I think it’s more about being engaged in the world and exploring things. But I would like to be able to make more things, faster.

This new show at the New Museum in New York next year is a big job. Not just to plan for it. We’ve had all kinds of proposals and engineering studies, and there’s also the money aspect. So a lot of the stuff takes a lot longer than you think.

I also asked that question because I read in an interview with Paul Schimmel that you wanted to be responsible for something on the scale of the Eiffel Tower.

Well, yeah, sure. I like the Eiffel Tower a lot, I think it’s a very interesting structure or sculpture or whatever it is, because it was absolutely hated when it was first put up and they wanted to tear it down. And there it is now, part of the French economy. I think it is interesting in the sense that there was a change in attitude about it. I mean yeah, I have this idea for a satellite that would be inflatable, and it would be very, very large. You could launch it compressed and then inflate it in outer space, it should be big so you can really see it. You could see it like the moon, because it would be all shiny, it would reflect on a night without clouds – wow! It would be like a car headlight going through. And I think that’s technically possible, now that’s a huge piece ‘cause everybody on earth would have a chance to see it, at least in the path of this orbit.

And I think it’s technically feasible – I just can’t get people to sign on. [laughs] But it would be fantastic. It’s doable, and there’s all kinds of people going into outer space. There is this hotel guy [Robert] Bigelow, he’s gonna have inflatable orbiting space hotels. So that’s what I’m saying. This is something that’s gonna happen in the next few years. Virgin Collectors is gonna do it, and there’s some other ones.

It’s physically possible now, you just need the finances. I don’t have the money, but I do have the ideas! [laughs]

When you have those ideas and you start thinking about realising them, do you sometimes contact lawyers to find out if you might get into problems?

Aaaah, we do have a couple of lawyers, but they are used mostly in going over the contracts.

Chris Burden’s installation “Urban Light” in front of the LACMA © Rokko

What current artists do you admire?

Oh gosh, I don’t think a lot about other artists, I have to be honest with you. I don’t take my inspiration from other artists and it’s not something that’s part of my consciousness. I mean… I’m sorry… [laughs]

But it’s great, you still have a lot of ideas – so how long do you wanna continue to work as an artist? Until the end?

[laughs] Yeah probably! Will I be retireing? I don’t think so. I could see not having exhibitions. I could see not doing interviews. But will I ever stop making things? I could see becoming totally a private artist or something… but what’s the point of waking up?

I mean, when I was a kid, I did a lot of photography. I did ceramics in high school. I don’t think when I did the photographs as a young teenager that I thought of being an artist, but that’s what art is about because I was doing them for myself and they gave me great pleasure. So really, I think that’s ultimately… Yes, it’s great to have recognition, that’s good, it’s good to have a little bit of money, it’s good ‘cause you can make more things – but all you really need is to satisfy yourself and keep yourself interested because otherwise, you’re kind of chasing smoke. I mean, for me the best thing when I make something – like “Metropolis II” – is when it’s better than you imagined, better than you dreamed of. You know, when I made “Medusa’s Head” and it was finished – yes, there is the drawing that I made two, three years before I built it, but the drawing was a few days of work – “Medusa’s Head” was three years. But when it’s finished, it really is something special and unique and satisfying.

If you wouldn’t have had the chance of becoming an artist, what do you think would have happened with you?

CB: Ahh… buhh… I don’t know, good question. I might be in jail, I might be dead, I might be… ahh..

KL: [laughs] Well, you started wanting to be an architect.

CB: Yeah, maybe I would be an architect. I don’t know, maybe. Who knows?! I mean… I think it was most likely I was gonna do something. I wasn’t gonna be a mathematician. I could have been a writer maybe, ‘cause I like writing stories. I don’t think I was gonna be an accountant. I don’t think I was gonna be a lawyer, even though I like to argue. It was just, you know, almost inevitable that I was gonna become an artist.