Chris Burden’s Metropolis II preview at LACMA

On January 14, Chris Burden’s Metropolis II will finally be unveiled at LACMA. The kinetic sculpture, which was slated to show in the fall, took a little longer to realize than expected. At this morning’s preview for members of the media, it was easy to see why. In the intricate piece, 1,100 Hot Wheels-like cars are led up magnetic conveyor belts and dropped onto tracks that weave through an idealized cityscape, crisscrossing with trains, trolleys, and other details.

Before the unveiling, LACMA Director and CEO Michael Govan put Burden’s piece in context by reminding the audience that the artist is also responsible for the iconic rows of historic streetlights in the museum’s main plaza. Thus, micro to macro. Govan added that each building had up to 10 prototypes built before the final one was created, and the process took longer than to build than an actual house! Burden then received a plaque from L.A. Councilperson Tom LaBonge, who stated that the city would not be subject to property tax and issued a set of keys to the City of Los Angeles in honor of the miniature cityscape.

Finally, an operator turned on the switches and the city came to life. Or at least the vehicles did. Burden pointed out that are no drivers or traffic lights because we won’t be driving cars in the future. So while the action is frantic when Metropolis II is fired up, it resembles clockwork more than a rat race. The effect is as hypnotic as it is thought provoking about the nature of work, transportation, urban living, and busyness.

The “city” is purposefully generic, without specific landmarks or local architectural cues, but it does provide a counterpoint of sorts to California Design–which is located nearby. Eames-patterned cards (above) as well as the mishmash of industrial and natural materials (erector sets vs. Lincoln Logs), mixing of architectural styles (miniature bricks juxtaposed with glass tile), and hints of cultural blending (mosques next to churches) come to mind. But unlike Blade Runner‘s Los Angeles, Akira‘s Tokyo, Judge Dredd‘s Mega-City One, or even Kowloon Walled City, density doesn’t lead to darkness. The effect is refreshingly playful and perhaps even hopeful.

Exiting the installation, I struck up a conversation with one of its operators. Rich Sandomeno (left), who is part of Chris Burden’s crew, was hanging out with Robin, a LACMA staffer who will also be tending the piece as well. Rich told me that it was indeed an ordeal to move and reconstruct the massive and complicated piece from Burden’s studio to the museum. Also, given the amount of cars needed for the sculpture it was actually cheaper to have them built in China than buy Hot Wheels, which were used in Metropolis I. The miniature vehicles are actually stamped with the artist’s name on the bottom, and used ones may actually appear in LACMA’s gift shop later on. Visitors from Mattel have already come by to check out the installation, so perhaps you’ll see elements of Metropolis II in toy shops down the road as well.

Metropolis II won’t be running every day. Materials wear down, machine parts need to be greased, and everything needs dusting. So it is scheduled to run for 90-minute sessions on weekends and holidays. I suggest looking up the schedule and watching it either start or finish. The transition from quiet to kinetic, stationary to scattering (or vice versa) is the mechanized equivalent of watching a sunrise or sunset. Then allow your mind wander into the future.