ACTION AS AGENCY IN OBJECT : Chris Burden 1979 -2015

By M Hannah


In the late 1960s, Chris Burden (b.1945) began developing his interest in the use of mechanical objects and systems in the undergraduate program at Pomona College, (fig. 1) where he majored in Visual Arts, Physics, and Architecture. He continued the exploration in his graduate program at the University of California at Irvine, and by the time Burden began integrating these components in his minimalist performances in the 1970s, he specifically used mechanical systems and objects that had been used not only in the construction of our physical world but in our social experiences and cultural vernacular, dragging along the multitude of sociological, economic and anthropological baggage accumulated through the previous two centuries, both positive and negative. In Burden's work from this period, there are the obvious and much cited associations to the conflict in Vietnam, gun violence, and the weaponization of institutionalized systems, with the art world being one of them. Burden was also interested in the (1) "slow, but steady disconnection of a social awareness and knowledge of the world of classical  mechanics and function", once stating in reference to C.B.T.V. that “ technology becomes more and more complex, fewer and fewer people have any understanding of how anything really works.”

(1) Mechanical systems are part of our cultural DNA. With few exceptions, we are born into a world that relies on mechanized systems to set up, enable and promote civility and prosperity. Both artists and industry use these systems or applications in both human controlled and automated production of objects. This event can include multiple participants when expertise, scale, and size are all a consideration. Between 1971 and 1979, Burden created approx. 43 performances incorporating his body, often dissolving or disappearing into or out of them. In 1975, he created B-car (fig. 2), his first major movement towards an application of mechanical systems in a semi autonomous sculpture. Up until 1978, mechanized or stand-alone sculpture was relatively ancillary to his practice, making up a small portion of his work compared to his immersive physical performances. Although it may look as if Burden completely transformed his practice around 1979, it is interesting that the use of mechanical objects combined with action was always present in Burden's work, even in his iconic performances. Throughout the 1970’s, Burden's performances incorporated guns shooting, camera's clicking, planes flying, engines revving, TV sets flickering, ladders soaking up water, wrenches turning, trucks working, bicycles moving, boats floating and radios crackling, just to name a few. In 1979, Burden continued the process of receding physically from his performances, only this time he began the transition from his body being the primary object in the performative-sculpture, to creating independent sculptures that vacillate between static and action, employing many of the Newtonian based mechanical principles and industrial systems that this essay is concerned with.

For this essay, I will discuss specific works developed by Chris Burden between 1979 and 2015, and argue that it is the use of these classical mechanics combined with action that creates an agency in the object. I will focus specifically on the performances and sculptures of Big Wheel (1979), Beam Drop (1981), Samson (1985) and Ode to Santos Dumont (2015)


I will consider and present an argument that Burden's implementation of action in these sculptures using mechanical and industrial systems, materials, and applications is with the INTENT to replace his body, enabling the sculpture to exist independently with its own agency. Additionally, I will discuss works chronologically, and address the forms of agency, both unique and similar in the works.

1 “Classical Mechanics.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 14 Aug. 2020,