Recently deceased artist Chris Burden had a long history of working with automobiles in his art. In his early days he crucified himself to the top of a VW Beetle (a piece called Trans Fixed). He set about designing and building a 100 mph and 100 mpg automobile based on intuition called the B-Car. In Big Wheel he used a motorcycle to power...a big wheel. And in Porsche with Meteorite he suspended the two objects above the museum floor on each end of a gigantic scale.
But his massive kinetic sculpture Metropolis II is something else: a child’s fever dream of a Hot Wheels-scale city, with 1,100 cars driving endlessly on 18 roadways, with two ramps that are 12 feet high and three conveyor systems that feed the cars back into the loop. The metal and the electricity needed to run the sculpture means that the thing is not just a sight to behold, but it’s staggeringly loud.
The title of the kinetic sculpture gives away its reference, that of Fritz Lang’s 1927 Metropolis (watch it online) and its imaginary city scapes of elevated freeways and train tracks and people movers and planes that fly in between:
Burden’s work has its own structures too, some of which are made from building blocks, Lego, and Lincoln Logs, turned into houses and skyscrapers. Don’t expect sensible urban planning in this city: seen from above, Metropolis II is a chaos of roads, and closed systems from which there is no escape.
There was a trial run of the sculpture called Metropolis I, a smaller version that was soon sold to a Japanese collector and taken out of the public view.
For the sequel, Burden went bigger, enlisting eight people full time for five and a half years to build the piece. Said the artist:
"We wanted to expand it and make it truly overwhelming — the noise and level of activity are both mesmerizing and anxiety provoking.”
But instead of a nightmare commentary, Burden wanted the piece to be utopian. The cars are moving at 240 mph, according to scale, and there’s no gridlock. He was looking ahead to a future of driverless cars, as he shared a hatred like many Angelenos of endless traffic jams.
The 30 foot wide sculpture was bought for an undisclosed sum by billionaire businessman Nicholas Berggreun, who also sits on LACMA’s board. He’s loaned it to the museum until 2022 and it is currently now situated in a special wing where visitors can see it both at ground level and from above. It takes one assistant to keep it free of hiccups and it only runs for a few hours at a time, and only on weekends.
However, LACMA’s entryway is also home to a Burden piece one can see 24/7, the iconic Urban Light.
Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the FunkZone Podcast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.