Art Superstar Chris Burden Has a New Toy and He Wants You to Watch Him Play With It

Despite the fact that superstar artist Chris Burden is now in his mid sixties, he still manages to find the time to play with toy cars. Burden, who is widely known for his painfully extreme performance pieces (Trans-Fixed, 1974 where Burden was nailed to a Volkswagon bug, and Shoot, 1971 where Burden was shot in the left arm by one of his studio assistants) has switched gears and created something that will make people say “holly shit” for a completely different reason.

Burden’s latest work, entitled Metropolis II, is a 600 square foot kinetic sculpture that he has been working on for the past 4 years. His inspiration for this piece came after completing his 2004 sculpture Metropolis I, which consists of 80 off-the-shelf Hot Wheels toy cars on two single-lane highways and a monorail train. Metropolis I was purchased by the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa, Japan for an undisclosed amount. It was shown for a brief 6 months and is now likely collecting dust in the museum’s storage facility.

In 2006 Burden, a team of eight studio assistants and engineer Zak Cook, set out to build a far more ambitious version of Metropolis I. After almost five years of laborious R&D and construction, Burden and his team has created a raucous mini-city, complete with 1,200 custom-designed cars that speed through 18 roadways at 240 scale mph, and 13 HO-scale (1:87.1) trains. Every hour Burden approximates that 100,000 cars circulate through the dense cityscape. Burden equates the continuous motion and noise the sculpture makes to the stress and anxiety of living in a bustling 21st Century city.

When Los Angeles County Museum of Art director Michael Govan got wind that Burden was creating Metropolis II, he knew the museum had to have it and reserved it at the outset of construction. Govan, believes Metropolis II is a “portrait of Los Angeles,” and was not letting it out of his city.

LACMA board member and billionaire Nicholas Bergguren agreed to buy the work, for an undisclosed price (definitely in the millions), from mega-dealer, Larry Gagosian, and loan it to LACMA for a period of ten years, where it will run three days a week. When running, Metropolis II requires two full time attendants that monitor the traffic flow for accidents. Yes, they even happen in Burden’s fantastical city. 

Metropolis II is controlled by three 1/2 horsepower DC motors and utilizes steel, aluminum, shielded copper wire, copper sheet, brass, various plastics and woods, Legos, Lincoln Logs, Dado Cubes, glass, ceramic, natural stone tiles, acrylic, oil-base paints, rubber, and sundry adhesives. The sculpture size is massive at 9 feet, 9 inches in height, 28 feet, 3 inches in width, and 19 feet, 2 inches in depth.

This will be Burden’s second monumental installation at LACMA. The first being at the entrance of the museum, where Burden created 200 lampposts from the 1920s and ’30s arranged in a electric mini-Parthenon formation. Metropolis II will be ready for public viewing in the fall of 2011 at LACMA.

The fantastic short above was created by Catfish directors Henry Joost & Ariel Schulman after they caught note of Burden’s genius. Images below are courtesy of E. Koyama, the artist and Gagosian Gallery. For a bit more about Chris Burden, scroll down to watch LACMA’s Director Series video featuring Micheal Govan’s sit down interview with the legend.


Eli Consilvio