The Other Vietnam Wall — Chris Burden

Chris Burden died yesterday, on Sunday, May 10. Respectful praise undulated through several obituaries that were posted almost immediately, but I found it odd that important work was either misdescribed or completely omitted. The LA Times, for instance, mentioned “The Reason for the Neutron Bomb” as an “important sculpture,” but failed to provide the larger context for Burden’s choice of 50,000 as the number of nickels arrayed on the floor of a gallery.  Among other things, Burden’s point was to remind us of the scale of tanks deployed in Europe by both the U.S.S.R. and the U.S.A. It was all too easy to ignore the enormity of the war plans that were on some level of tactical alert all the time. Burden refused to let us hit a daily, naive re-set button that somehow cleared away our apprehensions.

In the same mann, I found it odd that “The Other Vietnam Wall” was not cited except in an article in The Nation. According to that article, Burden’s huge retrospective a couple years ago in New York deliberately left out that piece. I find such an omission very disturbing. It is one of Burden’s most provocative pieces, and the willingness of the curators to collaborate with those who want to erase America’s memory of its war crimes is not much different from the refusal of Turkey to acknowledge the genocide of the Armenians by the Ottoman Empire.

Burden is notorious for his early performance pieces and their emphasis on subjecting one’s body to a self-imposed penalty shot, either literally or in some manner involving deprivation. I suspect that this early work will remain critically tantalizing, but I also believe his later work will prove to be the most substantial and enduring.