Chris Burden: Ode to Santos Dumont

At long last completed and just unveiled at LACMA, the sculpture Ode to Santos Dumont is, among other things, a tribute to originality and determination.

There was never a shortage of magazines interested in featuring Chris Burden’s ongoing works. I kept pitching the story, in recent years, knowing that I could always come back with something original and powerful and unexpectedly funny from the artist.
Truth be told, I also just liked hearing Burden talk. Get him on a topic he found interesting, and the rest was journalistic lightweight lifting from my end. He would challenge his own answers, back wild ideas with practical fact, and tie any loose threads with statements, such as: “I’m aware that it’s a real problematic work. To exhibit it is going to be a problem. And I don't know what else to say about it.” True story.
Chris Burden
In apertura: Chris Burden, Ode to Santos Dumont, 2015. 7075 aircraft aluminium reproduction Erector parts, carbon fiber drive shaft, fiber glass propeller, nylon cable, hand tooled 1/4 scale replica of 1903 gasoline motor, polyurethane balloon, 1200 cubic feet fo helium. © Chris Burden. Photo Joel Searles. Sopra: Chris Burden, Ode to Santos Dumont, 2015. © Chris Burden
The last occasion I had to visit the artist in his remote(ish) Topanga home and studio, complete with bunker (Beehive Bunker, 2006), was in 2013. He spoke excitedly for upward two hours about that aforementioned problematic work, around which he had been wrapping his head for roughly a decade. He was working on a piece that would celebrate Brazilian-born society man and aviation pioneer, Alberto Santos-Dumont, whose 1901 balloon flight around the Eiffel Tower won him the prestigious Deutsch de la Meurthe Prize. Burden used words like “incredible!” and “imagine!” in describing the man known in France as “the father of aviation” flying an engine-powered aircraft, distinguished by its hydrogen-filled balloon, over the rooftops of Paris.
Multiple times, Burden underscored that the balloon was not a zeppelin; even if similar in shape, it did not have the interior rigid framework. The artist insisted on manic exactness in this work, as others. With machinist and inventor John Biggs, Burden was creating a custom replica of the gondola motor, then. The project was massive and time-consuming. Burden was also considering building an Eiffel Tower for the sculpture, made of lightweight aluminum, certified for aircraft use. “I like the idea of going through the entire process, as if we were back in those days and trying to make sense of what’s possible,” Burden told me. “It takes a very, very long time, but it’s tremendously important to me that I’m in total control of the process. You know, if you grow your own vegetables, the soup’s going to taste better.”
Chris Burden
Rendering of Chris Burden's Ode to Santos Dumont, 2015. © Chris Burden
At the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) last week, I attended a preview of Ode to Santos Dumont, the first time that Burden’s sculpture took flight in public. There was no way to fit an Eiffel Tower into LACMA, so Burden’s aircraft, topped with its translucent helium-filled balloon, flew in a precise 60-foot circle around a very deliberate absence. It flew against the backdrop of museum walls on one side, floor-to-ceiling windows on another, and past the semi-circle of a large audience that had gathered. The audience was visibly moved by the artwork – moved, also, by the circumstances under which it premiered. One month ago, Chris Burden had phoned LACMA director Michael Govan to say that the sculpture, at long last, was complete. Burden passed away just days before Ode to Santos Dumont had its debut. His death came as a surprise to many people, who did not know of his illness.
John Biggs and one of Burden’s assistant’s, Joel Searles, tended to the sculpture at show time. People in attendance were eager to talk to them afterward, to get a sense of their working relationships with Burden, to bring the artist’s spirit more vocally into the conversation. But as Ode to Santos Dumont made its first rounds in the exhibition hall, the audience was uncommonly attentive and silent. Cameras clicked, and the quick shuffle of film crews trying to capture the performance resonated in the space, but nobody said a word or unceremoniously answered a phone call, or laughed or coughed. The audience wordlessly acknowledged the magnitude of this work, and the loss it has unexpectedly come to signify.


Ode to Santos Dumont is, among other things, a tribute to originality and determination. The sculpture makes a rhythmic mechanical hum as it flies. That a moment of silence for Chris Burden should be punctuated by the unflappable, utilitarian, continuous movement of his own work is a tribute, as well: to an artist growing his own vegetables.

Ode to Santos Dumont performs for 15-minute intervals through 12 May. Performance times are:

Mondays and Thursdays: noon, 2 pm, and 4 pm
Fridays: 1 pm, 3 pm, 5 pm, and 7 pm
Saturdays and Sundays: noon, 2 pm, 4 pm, and 6 pm

While at LACMA, it is possible to visit two other large-scale sculptures by Chris Burden: his iconic Urban Light & Metropolis II. See LACMA website for details.

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