Chris Burden's latest kinetic sculpture, "Metropolis II," does more than just imitate life. The colorful display of roads, cars, trains and buildings is art imitating what the artist foresees life being like in five or 10 years.
It will be a time, Burden forecasts, when cars will race across Los Angeles' no-longer-gridlocked freeways and streets, past a skyline of towering buildings and single-family homes, at speeds of 240 miles per hour or more.
That's just what the tiny cars do in "Metropolis II," a colorful contraption composed of 1,100 miniature vehicles, 18 miniature roads, a tiny commuter rail line and dozens of small skyscrapers and other buildings. The cars, which Burden says reach a speed of "240 scale miles per hour," are powered by a complex series of electronic conveyor belts and magnets,
"In essence, it's sort of a complicated roller-coaster system," the artist, one of the pioneers of the Light and Space movement that flowered in Los Angeles in the 1970s, explained after throwing the switch on it earlier this week.
It goes on display to the general public this weekend at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art where a separate gallery has been constructed to house it, one with a balcony so people can view the work from either ground level or above. But it will only be powered up on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and, this week, on Martin Luther King Day.
It is to remain on display at the museum for at least 10 years under an agreement with Nicolas Berggruen, the billionaire businessman who sits on the institution's board and who bought it for an undisclosed sum.
By the end of that time, Burden believes, we'll be living a real-life version of "Metropolis II," with real cars racing across the hillsides and over the freeways of Los Angeles, putting an end to traffic gridlock. Oh, and by the way, those cars won't have drivers in them, just passengers.
"I'm personally looking forward to it because I don't like driving in Los Angeles," laughs Burden, an affable man of 65 who looks little different, other than being a bit stockier and better dressed, than he did in 1971 when he shocked the art world with his controversial performance piece "Shoot."
For that work, which can still be viewed on YouTube, Burden had himself filmed being shot in the arm by a friend who stood 15 feet away with a .22 caliber rifle.
For the equally controversial 1974 piece "Trans-fixed," he had himself nailed, Christ-like, to the back of a Volkswagen bug.
More recently, he has gravitated to building large-scale sculptures made out of everyday objects.
In 2008 he built a 65-foot skyscraper out of Erector Set pieces and put it in the shadow of the 70-story General Electric building in New York City's Rockefeller Plaza.
Burden is also the creator of "Urban Light," a collection of 202 lovingly restored antique streetlights that were permanently installed in front of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's entrance in 2008.
By day they provide a whimsical maze for passers-by to stroll through. By night, they brilliantly illuminate an entire block of Los Angeles' Museum Mile in a stunning display of white light.
"I think Chris Burden is one of the most significant artists, not only of Los Angeles but of this period of time," says Michael Govan, the museum's director and chief executive officer.
Govan said he learned Burden was working on "Metropolis II" about the time "Urban Light" was being installed.
"Even in its very beginnings you could see the outlines of a great work of art," Govan said during an interview at the museum earlier this week.
It took Burden four years to construct "Metropolis II" at his studio in the rustic Topanga Canyon arts colony, where he lives with his wife, the sculptor Nancy Rubins.
Nearly 10 feet tall and 30 feet wide, it is made up of, among other things, toy Lego blocks, toy Lincoln logs and HO-scale railroad tracks and trains he picked up at various stores.
He had to have the 1,100 automobiles specially made at a factory in China, however. They include sports cars, sedans, trucks and vans, each one with a little magnet in the chassis, so that they pull and push one another along without ever touching.
Then the whole thing had to be transported to the museum.
"It was an epic effort," says Govan. "It took seven months to disassemble it in the studio and reassemble it here."
When Burden fired it up this week, the cars raced along "Metropolis II's" roads, including its six-lane freeway, at astounding speeds despite the nearly gridlock conditions. And, yes, there were no crashes despite all the tailgating.
Predicting his creation represents the future of automobile traffic, Burden notes Google is already testing driverless cars along San Francisco's famously winding streets and highways.
Advocates say such digitally driven vehicles could race through intersections at high speeds without colliding and without doing the stupid things that drivers do, like passing each other on blind curves.
"I think it's going to happen really quickly," Burden says. "I think people are going to be surprised. In five or 10 years you're going to see such cars."
Until then, however, he will continue to make the 20-mile trip to the museum from his home by driving his BMW. But that's all right with him. He likes having the work at the museum.
Although born in Boston, Burden has lived in LA for more than 40 years. He earned a master's degree in fine art from the University of California, Irvine, in the early 1970s and, along with Ed Ruscha, is arguably one of the city's most famous and accomplished pop artists.
"To have it go to Shanghai or Mumbai or to some Saudi Arabian's palace, it's not ideal for me," he said of his work, adding he had opportunities to sell it to other collectors.
"I like it being in my hometown because I can come down and see it and, you know, I can enjoy it myself," he said.