Child’s play: the 65-ft skyscraper made from a toy set

US artist Chris Burden reveals the inspiration behind his new massive installation at the Rockefeller Center

What My Dad Gave Me is US artist Chris Burden’s most monumental work to date, a 65-foot skyscraper made from a million stainless-steel replicas of pieces from Erector Set, a toy which allows you to construct your own buildings. The work towers over Rockefeller Center in New York until 19 July. Burden may be best known for his radical Californian performances in which he was shot in the arm (Shoot, 1971), run over by traffic (Deadman, 1972), fired a pistol at a passing plane (747, 1973) and was crucified on a car (Trans-Fixed, 1974), but his controversial reputation belies a conservative heritage and certain old fashioned elegance, whether making art on an Air France Paris to Washington, DC Concorde flight in 1977 or creating his own initialled C.L.B. cuvée of Reims champagne in 1994.

The Art Newspaper: Your new sculpture could not be more topical with crane construction disasters all over Manhattan.

Chris Burden: Cars crash, planes smash, boats sink, cranes fall over. I was talking about the most recent crane crash with some of the structural guys I’ve been working with at Rockefeller Center and they told me it was really old equipment, a cheap old crane. I have a lot of old equipment myself, a 1950 International bulldozer, a forklift, a Bobcat, and life is hard on old construction machinery; this bulldozer, it had to be taken apart, re-welded, by now it’s a $10,000 old bulldozer.

TAN: You’ve made this imposing building out of fragile toy parts.

CB: It’s really fragile, like a piece of lace. This system was invented by an American toymaker called A.C. Gilbert. He went to Yale and started with magic tricks, so originally this was called Mysto Building Construction. In Manhattan in 1909 he was so intrigued by all the steel structures being built that he wanted to come up with a toy boys could use. I was getting original antique parts [for the Rockefeller piece], I had a man who supplied me with rusty old parts, and the price started going up. He was buying them all up for me and so the price went up as I was making my own market! It was the same thing with the antique Californian street lights, [for Urban Light, currently installed outside the new Broad Contemporary Art Museum in Los Angeles]. I started buying them all up and so made my own one-man market until I was pricing myself out…

TAN: This resembles your 2003 proposal for the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square in London.

CB: It’s much the same—I’ve always wanted to build a skyscraper using these parts. I’m actually going to build the actual Trafalgar Square plinth on my own property in Los Angeles because I didn’t win that original competition [Marc Quinn’s statue of artist Alison Lapper was selected instead]. I’m a closet architect, a lot of my performances were triggered by a reaction to an architectural space.

TAN: You love titles for your works and this one has a nice pun.

CB: I first wanted to call it A Memorial for My Dad. He was an engineer and actually worked for the Rockefeller Foundation. He worked right here at Rockefeller Center. We were stationed in Paris and would visit him here. He eventually went back to Harvard as assistant dean at the School of Engineering. And his father was dean of Engineering at Tufts University. I guess there’s also a pun in the title that never occurred to me; the Rockefeller Center owners, the Speyers, are father and son, so What My Dad Gave Me could also refer to the gift of the buildings. My own dad gave me the interest in science in general and the idea I could do these sorts of things, making sure I was well educated.

TAN: In Switzerland?

CB: Well I was born in Boston. My folks moved to China before Mao came out of the hills, where my dad was [in the military]. We lived in Shanghai and Peking. Then Mao appeared and we were evacuated. We moved to France; he got hired by the Rockefeller Foundation in Paris. We spent a year on the island of Elba, we used to eat at this little restaurant with a sign saying that if Napoleon had ever eaten here he would never have left. We also spent a whole year just skiing in Zermatt, Switzerland. I went to Ecole Nouvelle, a boarding school in Lausanne and they prided themselves on being democratic, not having to call the Prince and royalty by their titles. [It was] very liberal and democratic. Then I came back to old fashioned Boston, where I can remember a Harvard graduate getting arrested for doing his washing in a laundromat on a Sunday. I went to this expensive Boston prep school that placed kids in Ivy League schools.

TAN: But your work seems very American.

CB: Yeah, that’s because converts are always more zealous; if you convert you’re the more devoted because you’ve made that distinct choice. I love going to Europe but can’t stand it too, it’s like going to Grandma’s house, suffocating. I’m a convert to America.

TAN: Was your early work a reaction against your conservative family?

CB: Now young artists come out of graduate school and expect shows and sales…it wasn’t like that in the 1970s, especially doing performance art. But the great thing was I didn’t have any overheads, other than photography. It was a way to go forward. Because it’s really easy to stop, there’s every reason in the world to stop, not do something. It’s a practical way to keep making art without a whole workshop. Because when you make an object and it doesn’t go into someone’s collection, guess what, you get to store it. I stored my five-ton sculpture Medusa’s Head for a decade before I sold it. With performance I was able to ask what sculpture was. Two-dimensional work is illusionary, you look into a picture-plane but sculpture forces people to move. As a minimalist I wanted to distil sculpture down to the essence. With sculpture the viewer has to move so maybe that’s what sculpture is: action. I didn’t have to make an object to make art, I could just do art.

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