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Chris Burden: 14 Magnolia Double Lamps - South London Gallery

Feature by James Haddrell

EXACTLY as the title suggests, the latest exhibition to open at the South London Gallery courtesy of American artist Chris Burden comprises 14 identical streetlamps taken from his personal collection and transported, all 20 tonnes of them, to the UK.

At first glance, the installation seems to suggest that Burden is mellowing. This work is a million miles from his controversial headline-grabbing performance art which famously began in 1971 with a gallery reception in California at which he had himself shot.

Having established himself as an exponent of a new, violent form of performance art, Burden subsequently electrocuted himself, crucified himself and, over 30 years before David Blaine encased himself in a Plexiglas box above the Thames, he locked himself in a two foot square metal locker and stayed there with no food for five days.

As the decade wore on, he turned away from performance art, and since then has increasingly drawn on technology for inspiration.

A one-time physics student, in the late 70s Burden designed and built a fully operational lightweight vehicle which he claimed could travel 100 miles in an hour on only one gallon of fuel.

In the 80s, he followed this with his Speed Of Light Machine – a recreation of a late 19th Century machine which allows the operator to witness the finite speed of light.

More recently, he has turned to architecture for his subject matter and now he is engaged in the ongoing Urban Light project, of which the current exhibition at SLG is a part.

For the installation, Burden has brought 14 1920s streetlamps from the streets of Los Angeles, which somehow evaded the mass removal and destruction that took place in the 1960s and 70s, and placed them in a tightly formed avenue in the centre of the small gallery.

However, whilst there is a world of difference between an artistically motivated act of self-mutilation and the collection and exhibition of ornate lampposts – and these are particularly impressive examples, combining classical columns with art deco ornamentation and ice-cream cone lanterns – there is a political engagement visible in this work which can be traced right back to the early 70s.

Created during the Vietnam War, the career-launching Shoot made a public spectacle of a senseless shooting at a time when television screens across America were doing the same thing in the guise of news.

Subsequent works like The Reason for the Neutron Bomb in the late 70s and All the Submarines of the United States a decade later may have been more whimsical in nature – representing disturbing statistics about the world’s military activities with matchstick tanks and cardboard submarines – but if anything that whimsical, childlike literalism made the works all the more affecting.

Coming right up to date, the idea of ornate lampposts burning brightly in an unexpected place conjures up expectations of something magical, a glimpse of another world, the boundary between Peckham and Narnia, but that is not the sensation you get when you enter the gallery.

The streetlamps may not make any direct reference to the military activities taking place around the world, but despite hailing from a time of American wealth and optimism Burden’s installation creates a feeling of regimented, anonymous mass production, more like a double row of soldiers than a Californian boulevard.

Arranged too close together to comfortably see individually, painted a uniform grey and commandeering the space with a brute physicality which you wouldn’t expect from a construction designed to illuminate the space around it, these strangely human forms stand rigidly to attention, oblivious to our tiny presence.

Burden has described these lampposts as “a statement about what constitutes a civilised and sophisticated society – safe after dark and beautiful to behold”.

If seen at night with the light emitted from the lanterns dominating the effect maybe that would come across, but as they are the light given off is quickly dispersed and lost in the surrounding daylight and the overall impression is one of physical strength.

They may be intended to suggest a protective society but these 14 guardians of our night-time safety are more than a little intimidating.

It may be a stretch of the imagination but it seems that Burden has homed in on a protective body which we all take for granted and largely ignore, and forced us to see it, literally, in the cold light of day.

Maybe those military and political bodies which protect us today should likewise be seen and judged, not in the reassuring glow of their successes but in terms of the power that supports those successes.

Don’t misunderstand me; this is not a statement about conspiracy theories or invisible forces. Streetlamps are not invisible; we just don’t ever really look at them. Maybe the same is true of those forces we rely upon to feel safe…

Picture caption: Chris Burden, 14 Magnolia Double Lamps, 2006. Photo: Andy Stagg

Chris Burden: 14 Magnolia Double Lamps
South London Gallery, 65 Peckham Road, London, SE5 8UH.
020 7703 6120;
Tuesday-Sunday 12–6pm; Closed Mondays
Free entry