Chris Burden at the Tate Gallery (1999)

Review of installation When Robots Rule: The Two Minute Airplane Factory in London, England.

R.J. Preece (ADP)
Art Design Publicity at ADC | 15 September 2009
This review first appeared in World Sculpture News, 5(2), pp. 70-1 in 1999.

Chris Burden at the Tate Gallery, London

Sometimes things work out, sometimes they fail miserably. The fact that Los Angeles-based Chris Burden’s computerized installation, When Robots Rule: The Two Minute Airplane Factory (1999) hasn’t functioned mechanically— at least publicly— since it was scheduled to open March 2 until this reviewer’s viewing in early May, isn’t questioned. But the issues brought to the forefront concern the mystery of artistic intention and institutional response and the extent to which an artist’s history can tell us about their current work.

It was supposed to work out beautifully. The installation occupied the Tate Gallery’s Duveen Galleries, a space between the entrance and the much talked-about Jackson Pollock Retrospective. “Burden has conceived [the installation] as a ‘factory-like’ assembly line which will manufacture rubber band-powered model airplanes from tissue paper, plastic, and balsa wood parts. The process, which is all on view, culminates in the launch of each plane to fly up and circle round before descending to land on the Gallery floor. The airplanes will be on sale to visitors.” Chris Burden developed the concept and the design was implemented by London-based Studio S sculptural engineers.

But, despite countless efforts, it wasn’t working, and the Tate Gallery wasn’t talking. A placard outlined details about the intended functioning parts of the machine, and despite no material occupying the assembly-line, a mesmerized crowd surrounded it, examined its movements, listened to its workings, and considered what should be happening. If anything, Robots activated viewer fascination with the mystery of complex machinery. Meanwhile, two attendants stood waiting for descending airplanes that were never launched. By not functioning, the work illustrated that robots, in fact, don’t rule everything, and for the time being, are still subjected to individual and group shortcomings.

So, was the failure of the machinery the real intention of the work? Throwing precedence into the art historical soup, Robots has been considered within the context of Chris Burden’s earlier work— which tested boundaries and created sensations— ranging from extreme performance pieces like TV Hijack (1972) and Trans-fixed (1974), when he was crucified on a Volkswagen.

His later installation work questioned Cold War dynamics. All the Submarines of the United States of America (1987) consisted of 625 miniature-scale submarines, representing those launched since the first one in 1897. Yet, while certain writers are speculating in the “Did Chris Burden catch out the Tate?” discussion and hoping that his previous work gives us the answers, this is fundamentally unanswerable. The answer resides behind the mysterious veil of artistic intention and press office representation.

Leaving the installation, a glass-enclosed airplane comically rests on a plinth, this one apparently hand-made by Chris Burden: Whether the whole thing was intended by Burden and/or the Tate Gallery, it doesn’t really matter— it’s great art theater. The issues of craft versus machinery, art as vernacular commodity, the friction of intention and interpretation, and the ambiguity of truthful representation have been ingeniously presented. And the robot systematically sticks out its dysfunctional “tongue”— [as people look for model airplanes]— every two minutes.