Chris Burden’s Big Wheel: “Beautiful and, Simultaneously, Frightening”

The Big Wheel: It’s dangerous, it makes your heartbeat quicken, because if it didn’t, what would it be doing in a retrospective? On the fourth floor of New York City’s New Museum, beneath the floor devoted to video documentation of seminal performance works—like the gunshot fired through Burden’s arm or the nails that crucified his outstretched palms to the hood of a Volkswagen beetle—two monumental sculptures share a white cube, fit for neither.
Next to a “poor man’s Porsche” balanced by a meteorite, a 1968 Benelli motorcycle is mounted upon a wooden frame and attached to an antique metal flywheel—an eight-foot in diameter, 6,000-pound scrap from a 19th-century factory—that together comprise The Big Wheel, which is set in motion when the bike is mounted and revved. Created in 1979, the kinetic sculpture marked Burden’s shift from performance to sculpture, fusing the two, uniting man and machine as the flywheel came to life and filled Rosamund Felson Gallery with a very real sense of danger (and the intoxicating smell of gasoline). “In the latter part of the 1970s, the focus of my investigation shifted from the internal to the external, and I proceeded to make objects that explore issues of power,” Burden said of the work. “This exploration centers on the dichotomy that power can be attractive, comforting, and beautiful and, simultaneously, frightening and ominous.”
At the New Museum, Burden’s Big Wheel is again in motion. Twice daily, the hypnotic, spinning flywheel is wound by the back wheel of the bike, reaching 200 rpm—or about 60 miles per hour. After a few minutes, the rider dismounts the motorcycle, but for an hour-and-a-half thereafter, the spinning flywheel perseveres, drunken with kinetic energy.
Chris Burden: Extreme Measures” is on view at the New Museum, New York City, through January 12th, 2014.