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War Games: A Master of Many Pieces at OCMA

A vintage review reveals how Chris Burden's A Tale of Two Cities at OCMA plays with our fantasies of the past with a timelessness that comments on contemporary culture and crises

Orange County Museum of Art staff installing Chris Burden's A Tale of Two Cities (1981) on view through January 4, 2015.

It may be presumptuous to read too much into the work of conceptual artist and provocateur Chris Burden, whose 1981 installation, A Tale of Two Cities, is now on view at the Orange County Museum of Art.
Burden — who may be destined to be remembered most for audacious performance art created early on (and for only a brief period) in his artistic career — easily fits the role of sly raconteur. From his salad days as a University of California, Irvine, student who infamously had a friend shoot him, through later drawings, installations, assemblages, video art and sculpture, there is always the sense that he is, well, toying, with an audience.
This, of course, is the point of A Tale of Two Cities, a room-sized war drama played out by a motley assortment of 5,000 toys — including the requisite little green army men as well as model buildings, Lego warships, shiny rockets, and miniature replicas of cannons, among other things — in a landscape constructed out of more than 3 tons of sand and rock.
The installation was purchased by the museum in 1987 and first displayed in 1988 as part of a 20-year survey of Burden’s art work.
It reflects abiding formal and thematic concerns that began two years earlier, in 1979, with a series of “devil drawings” in which Burden first began to confront issues of military power, a theme he also explored in the installation, The Reason for the Neutron Bomb, that same year.
The play between power, violence and physical, social and economic infrastructures continued to intrigue Burden, leading to a major body of work he produced throughout the ’80s and ’90s.
In this narrative of two neighboring city-states, Burden manipulates social commentary and child’s play to create a meditation on the banalities of war that is itself banal. The medium is the message.
Upon entering the gallery, one can’t help but notice the abundance of details with which Burden has filled the Lilliputian environs. Here is the drive-in theater, and there, up the road, is the city dump.
It’s a seductive opening that leads the viewer, with curious delight, onward toward the innocuous suburban edge of a fair-sized city, replete with factories, skyscrapers, and, one realizes, increasing amounts of the machinery of war.
Proceeding along the sweep of sand that edges the viewer’s path down the length of the room, one’s progress parallels that of a flank of soldiers and oversized (comparatively speaking) Japanese transformer robots marching single file from the metropolis towards a battlefront delineated by a row of (real) bullets.
The viewer, too, advances with the battalion toward a slightly smaller but obviously less industrialized city, which lies around the curve of a mountain range cobbled out of rock. One’s first view of the enclave is that of a city under attack.
It’s not apparent why the big city has decided to overtake its more diminutive neighbor, or what it hopes to gain by this campaign, given its conspicuous technological superiority. This is war for war’s sake, an idle if idealized pursuit, much like the war games children play. Burden initially conceived of the installation as a serial drama, in which viewers could return over the course of the exhibition to witness changes in the battlefield. When A Tale of Two Cities was first shown, each city-state occupied equal portions of the landscape, but the museum’s contractual agreement with Burden requires the ongoing battle to evolve over each subsequent display, until the encroachment upon and decimation of Little City is complete.
“A Tale of Two Cities” is considered to be Burden’s fantasy of the future, but a more prevalent theme is the need to reckon with our fantasies of the past. A remote elite class lives atop the mountain range that separates the two urban centers, accessible only via a tiny monorail up a steep incline.
It is important to note that except for the battalions of Army guys down on the battlefield, there are no human figures in the entire tableaux; machinery and buildings act as stand-ins. Here, cardboard models of European castles, villas and estates hug the cliffs somewhat precariously.
This is a wonderfully ironic juxtaposition of materials and imagery, with the flimsy and disposable representing the solid and ancient. It also riffs on a romanticized European past that belies a feudal system mirroring the military aggression of the city-states below — both of whom, it is interesting to note, have steam shovels and dump trucks digging away at the base of the mountain.
Are they mining for valuable resources to support their campaigns against one another? Toppling an outmoded structure in a blood lust of military prowess? The implication — at least one implication — is that history is nothing more than fodder for the claims and conceits of the present.
If one looks closely, other idyllic storybook scenes emerge — a Swiss chalet (Heidi’s house!), bucolic farmhouse (Old MacDonald’s pad!), and “Indian” village of teepees and totem poles (Ishi’s wigwam!). These are tucked at the farthest distance from the viewer, at the edge of this small world, next to a jungle of potted plants that edges the entire scene.
Binoculars provided by the museum help the viewer to discern details such as these, and the up-close view lends a you-are-there realism to the illusion. There is something immensely satisfying about shifting one’s perspective and sense of scale by pulling in and out of the action.
This, plus Burden’s flair for the absurd (a large rubber shark devours a boat; tanks and carrier ships float side by side atop the bed of sand) draws viewers into a pointed critique that is also a marvel of ingenuity.
It is hard to say how much the installation owes to its literary doppelganger, Dickens’ opus about the French Revolution, save that both focus on intense social upheaval. This opus is framed as a temporal plaything, a precarious construction built atop a bed of sand — symbol of the ever-changing nature of existence, in which mountains are reduced to the stuff of a child’s sandbox. But then, maybe I’m reading too much into it. l

Share the Tale :: A Tale of Two Cities, part of the Avant-Garde Collection, runs through January 4 at Orange County Museum of Art. :: ocma.net

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