Petrifying Danger: Chris Burden’s Medusa

On hearing the sad news of the artist Chris Burden’s death, I wanted to dedicate a post to his work and, for obvious reasons, his monstrous 1990 sculpture Medusa’s Head seems to be the most fitting choice for Minus Plato.

Chris Burden, Medusa’s Head, 1990. Plywood, steel, cement, rock, model railroad trains and tracks

Margalit Fox’s obituary in The New York Times begins by listing the various ways in which Burden has put himself in all kinds of danger for the sake of his art:

Chris Burden, a conceptual artist who in the line of duty had himself shot, pierced, starved, crucified, electrocuted, cut by glass, kicked down stairs, locked up, dropped from heights and nearly drowned, though by no means all at once, died on Sunday at his home in Topanga, Calif. He was 69.

Chris Burden, Trans-Fixed, 1974, performance.

It is this element of danger in his performance work that, back in 1991, Roberta Smith (also writing in The New York Times) alluded to as a way of making sense of his ‘turn’ to sculpture via the specific case of Medusa’s Head:

“Medusa’s Head,” which took two years to make, is one of the few to meld the sense of imminent danger of his performance pieces into a truly powerful sculptural form.

Smith locates the danger of Burden’s sculpture not in its representation of the snaked-haired Gorgon of mythology (her review is called ‘Medusa’s Head, Without the Snakes’), but in how it replicates the effect of Medusa’s petrifying gaze.

As with the Medusa of myth, the sheer ugliness of Mr. Burden’s new sculpture may stop some viewers in their tracks. 

Caravaggio, Testa di Medusa, 1597, oil on canvas mounted on wood.

It is no mistake that Smith folds her description of the effect of the work on the viewer with the description of the work itself, as she makes clear the precise difference between the Classical myth and the contemporary artwork: 

You almost can’t get close enough to it. Instead of snakes, this Medusa sprouts yards of model-railroad track crisscrossing its ravaged surface with ferocious industriousness….On the tracks are dozens of model trains hauling all kinds of raw and refined materials, from wood and iron ore to steel girders, across numerous bridges and in and out of soot-covered tunnels. The trains, which come in five different scales and use seven gauges of track, are not actually moving, but they create an illusion of ceaseless activity. The suggestion of a big festering skull encouraged by the work’s title never entirely disappears. Nonetheless, once the myriad railroad details pop into focus, the work’s scale jumps from the merely enormous to a panorama of Spielbergian proportions. Suddenly the crags and crevices become mountains, valleys or man-made roadbed cuts. The meteor becomes a planet being strangled by an unsettling combination of human ingenuity and human neglect, and both are enumerated with the technical flair of a movie set designer. One almost expects black smoke to rise from the surface or to hear a thunderous crack of Dolby-driven doom. 
Medusa’s ‘big festering skull’ becomes Burden’s ‘meteor/planet’ in which the ‘strangling’ railroad tracks replace the Gorgon’s head of snakes. Yet the most consistent correlation between the myth and the sculpture seems to be that of how the danger of viewing (being literally petrified by the returned gaze of the myth) is exacerbated by the semblance of movement within the object itself. Smith’s allusions to cinematic fanfare aim to make sense of how Burden’s seething object creates ‘an illusion of ceaseless activity’, not just from the trains, but from its depiction of the explosive activity of ‘human ingenuity and neglect’.

It is precisely this association between danger and activity that permeates ancient accounts of the myth. For example, consider the appearance of Medusa’s head in painting described in the ancient Greek novelist Achilles Tatius in his work Leucippe and Clitophon. The painting depicts Perseus saving Andromeda from the terrifying sea-monster, using the Gorgon’s head as his weapon:

In his left hand he held the Gorgon’s head, wielding it like a shield. Even as a painting, it was a frightening object, with eyes staring out of their sockets, and serpentine hair about the temples all writhing and erect: a graphic delineation of intimidation. 

Wall painting from Pompeii found in the Casa Dei Dioscur, c.50CE.

Here Achilles breaks the frame of his ekphrasis (a literary description of a work of visual art) by conflating the danger of the object (Medusa’s head) with the painting itself. Furthermore, like Smith’s review of Burden’s sculpture, it is precisely the unnerving sensation of movement that creates this effect. Classicist Helen Morales, in her brilliant study of vision and narrative in Achilles Tatius’ novel, points out that, even though Medusa’s head (and, by extension, the painting depicting it) is lifeless, the language of the description is suffused with movement, not only of the ‘writhing’ snakes, but of the Gorgon’s eyes.

Morales notes that the word that Achilles uses to describe her eyes (exepetasen), meaning ‘spread out’, ‘unfurl’, ‘stretch out’:

is a gestural term, connoting movement and protrusion…[giving] the impression that Medusa’s eyes are actually penetrating through the painted plane of the picture’s surface. Breaking through the two-dimensional structure which houses her, Medusa’s gaze ruptures the fundamental boundary that the surface of the picture constitutes and invades the viewers space.

When read back onto Burden’s sculpture,we don’t necessarily need make the direct identification (with Smith) of the mythical snakes and the sculptural trains. Nor do we need to see the later sculpture as somehow ‘petrifying’ the danger embodied in Burden’s earlier performance works. Instead, with Achilles, in Morales’ reading, we must take responsibility for the way an artist intervenes in the space of the viewer (or reader) to the extent to which their perception of the world around them is changed in the process.

My favourite example of this, back in Columbus, Ohio, where I live and work, is Burden’s subtle but devastating installation of the building of the Wexner Center for the Arts:

Whenever I see the building now, I cannot help but recall Burden’s playful additions that, like Medusa’s Head, make the viewer both think about the past (i.e. the Medusa myth and the architecture of the castle) and understand the ambiguous claims of human progress and industry (i.e. the railroad strangled planet and Eisenman’s deconstructive architecture). For Burden, there may not be a better description of his pioneering vision than Achilles’ phrase: a graphic delineation of intimidation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *